Tuesday December 18 9:44 am

Spotlighting events along the south shore of Lake Michigan

"Caroline, or Change" - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

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Caroline Thibodeaux (Rashada Dawan), an African-American middle-aged mother, has been working for the Gellman family for decades, doing laundry, preparing meals and washing dishes tirelessly for minimal financial compensation. Stuart Gellman (Jonathan Schwart) is a professional clarinetist who has recently lost his wife to cancer. His young son Noah (Alejandro Medina) desperately misses his mother and is quite cold to the family friend named Rose (Blair Robertson) who has married Stuart, though whether she did it because she's in love with the man or more likely out of a sense of obligation to his late wife is unclear.

Rose valiantly attempts to befriend Caroline, and even though the family is unable to give her a raise in salary, Rose does offer to allow Caroline to keep any loose change that she may find in the pockets of Noah's clothing before she puts it into the washer. Rose feels that this may be a way to teach Noah discipline as well as help out Caroline, who can share the extra money with her three young children: Emmie (Bre Jacobs), Jackie (Princess Isis Z. Lang) and Joe (Lyric K. Sims).

When Noah's grandparents visit for dinner to celebrate the Hanukkah holiday, it is Rose's father, Grandpa Stopnick (Michael Kingston) who gives Noah a $20 bill as a gift. Sure enough, the absent-minded Noah leaves that bill in his pants pocket and throws it into the laundry heap, which leads to a heated argument where hurtful words are exchanged between Caroline and Noah. It is here that the play resembles another work that addresses the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish people in the South during the 20th century. One can't help but remember that tin of canned tuna that Hoke is accused of stealing in Alfredy Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy."

There are some instances of magic realism in "Caroline, or Change." For example, the radio that Caroline listens to while doing the laundry in the basement is personified by a singing trio of women: Roberta Burke, De'Jah Jervai and Emma Sipora Tyler. Also, the Washer comes to life and talks to Caroline in the form of Tyler Symone, who also portrays the Moon. Michael Lovette does double duty as the devilish Dryer, whom Caroline seems to despise or be afraid of, as well as the Bus. Mr. Lovette possesses an absolutely beautiful and rich baritone voice that is like liquid gold. Here's hoping that this young man has a bright and successful future ahead of him. Bre Jacobs is fierce and fiery as Caroline's oldest daughter Emmie, an intelligent student who is clearly headed to becoming an activist in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Also very good is Nicole Michelle Haskins who plays Dotty, Caroline's friend who is trying to advance herself professionally so she has enrolled in classes at the local university. One would be remiss to overlook the charm and charisma of Lyric K. Sims as the youngest Thibodeaux child. With some technical difficulties involving her body microphone on opening night, the diminutive diva-in-the-making prevailed as a true professional with a mega-watt smile that lit up the entire Heath Main Stage. Of course, the star of the show is clearly Dawan. Her Caroline is extremely tightly-wound and no-nonsense, taking on all of her personal regrets and frustrations and sealing them up deeply within herself. When she finally explodes near the end of Act Two it is not only a cathartic release for her but emotionally devastating to watch as an audience member.

Scenic Designer Lauren Nichols has created an expansive and thoughtful set. By utilizing several wooden slats that somewhat resemble pallets she has built a multi-level playing area. The lowest level is Caroline's laundry room in the Gellman home, reinforcing the fact that Caroline is at the bottom of the social strata and that she feels underwater all of the time (the libretto has her singing early in the first act that you can't go underground in Lake Charles, only underwater). The next level up, stage right, is Caroline's home and just above that is Noah's bedroom. The hightest level is the living room of the Gellman's. The floor, which runs the perimeter, is used for all outdoor scenes. Tucked away behind all of this are the musicians under the music direction of Andra Velis Simon. Complementing the scenic design are the costumes of Kotryna Hilko and Cat Wilson's evocative lighting design.

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"Caroline, or Change" runs until October 28, 2018.
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.
Location: The Den Theater's Heath Main Stage, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM.
Tickets: $45, $20 students/industry rush tickets available at the box office. Single tickets and season subscriptions are currently available at firebrandtheatre.org