Thomas Gibbons' new play, A House With No Walls, is filled with stirring thoughts, incisive conclusions and surprisingly little drama.
The conflict is there, from the first moments after overlapping talk about race fills the air and the lights come up on Cadence, a successful and contrarian black historian who is being courted by conservatives.
She's on the board of a new national Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, to be built over the former cabins of George Washington's slaves.
Gibbons draws from recent events for his premise — the new housing for the Liberty Bell was, indeed, planned on the site of Washington's slave quarters, resulting in controversy, protests and eventual compromise.
Cadence faces off against Salif Camara (his surname is far from accidental), a young black activist staging a protest on the site of the museum. Torn between them is Allen, a white historian who struggles to find the truth.
Gibbons intersperses their dealings with the story of Ona Judge, historically known as one of Martha Washington's slaves who escaped to freedom, and her brother, Austin, who did not.
Past and present blend fluidly under donnie l. betts' direction, but the emotion does not. The scenes involving Ona are involving and moving, with primary credit to Simone St. John, who plays the slave with a mix of strength and terror. Her growing realization as to the dimming possibility of her dreams crushes both character and audience.
The rest of the actors are strong, but can't surmount narrowly written characters. Gregory J. Adams is given such a neutral role in Allen there is little opportunity for him to flesh it out. Quatis Tarkington slides easily into the past as Ona's brother, and Kurt Soderstrom gives one of the few performances in the theater of a moderate Republican.
The most vocal characters are the true believers, Salif and Cadence, but they wind up as mouthpieces. Tyee Tilghman takes Salif from good intentions to publicity lust, aided by Annette Westerby's increasingly Afrocentric costumes. Jada Roberts makes a convincing case for Cadence's beliefs that black Americans need to drop feelings of victimization and move forward, but we never see how she arrived at that belief, and a romance between her and Allen has no emotional basis.
Interesting ideas furnish A House With No Walls, so many that the head spins as it tries to reconcile them. That's a good thing. What Gibson needs, though, are characters who transcend newspaper headlines.