Arthur French and Jennifer Van Dyck
in The Picture Box
(© Carmen L. de Jesus)
Arthur French and Jennifer Van Dyck
in The Picture Box
(© Carmen L. de Jesus)
Simply put, the legendary Negro Ensemble Company's latest production, Cate Ryan's The Picture Box, now at the Beckett Theatre, fails to live up to the standards of such groundbreaking playwrights as Charles Fuller and Samm-Art Williams. Worse yet, the play fails to live up to it own potential.

The Picture Box is, apparently, about the delicate balance between embracing one's roots and moving on. What is the complex truth behind the ties between Carrie (Jennifer Van Dyck), a relatively privileged white woman, and Mackie (French), the beloved black caretaker who helped raise her? How does it compare with what she thinks their relationship is? It's the elephant in the room that Ryan seems to want to write about, but from which she ultimately backs away.

Indeed, Ryan keeps tossing in and out at least a half dozen other potentially major plot points - many of which are introduced by way of such tired narrative device as overheard soliloquies, cartoon villains, and sudden revelations emerging out of nowhere before disappearing without further exploration.

Sadly, Van Dyck misses a number of opportunities to add layers to her role that the playwright fails to provide herself. French, as always, has a compelling stage presence, but he's uncertain of his lines (once or twice, he had to be fed them by fellow actors), and he and Weldon miss important nuances in key scenes, such as a potentially revealing confession about the fate of a beloved pet of Carrie's, who mysteriously disappeared one day.

Weldon does draw strong supporting work from Elain Graham, who plays Mackie's wife, Jo, with unshakeable dignity. And Marisa Redanty makes the most of the shallowly written part of Karen, the wife of a man (Malachy Cleary, in a one-dimensional portrayal), who wants to buy Carrie's childhood home and tear it down.