Caroline, or Change
by Bradford Theatre Arts

At the end of 1963, many things were changing. The Civil Rights Movement was coming into full swing. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A new generation was growing determined to make radical changes to society. And a 39-year-old African-American woman was hoping for some kind of change from her life as a single mom earning just $30 a week as a maid for a relatively well-off Jewish family in Louisiana. For her, “change” began to take on a more literal meaning – coins left in the pockets of Nick Gellman, the young boy who, as he felt more and more uncomfortable in his own family, began to idolize Caroline, the straight-talking woman who occasionally lets him smoke a puff on her cigarette.

Caroline had been putting the loose change in the bleach cup for its eventual return to Nick, but the situation was appalling to Noah’s new stepmother Rose who thinks it shows a lack of respect for money, and who finds it embarrassing for her stepson to show such disrespect for money when Caroline, who finds the change, is earning so little. Rose insists that Caroline teach Noah a lesson by keeping any money she finds. It’s an idea that Caroline initially resists, but eventually her desperate financial need changes her mind – a compromise in values that is met with pleasure by her kids who enjoy the perks of a few extra dollars a week, and by Noah who purposely leaves her money and delights in how it is helping Caroline and her kids – a family he would rather belong to than his own. But it also sets up a situation that will lead to a powerful conflict between Noah, Caroline, and her own soul.

It’s an unusual and challenging musical, and Director Holly Stanfield and her talented group at Bradford Theatre Arts in Kenosha, Wisconsin put on a very strong performance of it with Katherine Thomas as Caroline – a terrific actress and vocal talent whose weariness, stress, frustration, and inner conflict are so impressively portrayed. She is kept company in the basement washing clothes by three appliances who are impersonated by three actors: a jazzy radio, a gyrating and agitating washer, and Luis Herrera as a cool dryer who likes to be turned on.

Then there are the people who live in the Gellman house. Mr. Gellman is the distant father who prefers to be alone with his music than talking with his son, and doesn’t know his son at all (when he gives his son an allowance to save for something like a chemistry set, Noah is imagining Barbies, comic books, and Sea-Monkeys). Aja Goes stars as Rose, the much more involved stepmother who is bitter and unhappy in her new life away from New York, and who is far more concerned with outward appearances than underlying reality. The tension between the image she seeks to portray and what she’s thinking are clearly apparent in Aja’s tone and subtle facial expressions. It’s little wonder her stepson Noah tries to cling to Caroline and her family, people who are more honest and down-to-earth. The high school recruited an eighth grader for the role who does great as the awkward, lonely boy who misses his dead mother and lights up when he sees the happiness he brings to Caroline and her family, cheered that he might finally find some escape from his own unhappy family. But when he accidentally leaves a $20 bill in his pocket, a recent Hanukkah present, all the differences between them are laid bare, with Noah saying he hoped white supremacists would bomb her, and Caroline telling him that hell is where Jews go when they die.

Other strong performances come from Caroline’s friend Dotty and Caroline’s charismatic daughter Emmie, who can be playful (leading the kids in a song about a nosey kid named Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw) and can endear herself to her mother at the drop of a hat. But none of that playfulness limits her desire to see the Civil Rights Movement be bolder than it’s ever been or to engage in lively discussions with her mother and with Rose’s father, the latter of which is excited to finally have a real conversation in the Gellman home.

Bradford turned their stage into an intimate black box for the show with rows of chairs up on the stage and a boxed-in area for the performance, the “appliances” standing above their respective appliances and stairs leading up from the laundry room from which Noah often talks to Caroline. Unfortunately, a curtain blocked the view of the stairs from some of the audience seats, so much of the acting that occurred there went unseen. But the acting that was seen and the array of vocal talent on the stage was remarkable as the students delved into these characters created by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) with a rich and diverse score by Thoroughly Modern Millie’s Jeanine Tesori.

Performed May 1 - 4, 2008

Rob Hopper
National Youth Theatre


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