Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2002

When I learned that I was going to attend and review a show about Susan Smith’s drowning of her two toddler sons, my heart sank. Two years ago I saw and reviewed In A Lake of Fire, a musical based on this tragic true story, and found that the excellence of the writing, acting, and production values could not erase from my mind the distasteful thought that the motivation behind the creative acts was a successful, and lucrative, New York production. While I can fully understand why someone would try to cope with such a tale through artistic expression, I have a hard time with the idea of trying to profit off of dead babies.

I am glad to say that I did not suffer a similar revulsion with Cornelius Eady’s excellent verse play Brutal Imagination Eady, a Pulitzer Prize nominated black poet and dramatist, was motivated not by visions of creative and financial success, but from his horror at Smith’s cover story that a black man had taken her car and her sons. To give voice to his concerns, Eady has imagined that this black man, who he calls Mr. Zero, actually exists for the nine days that Smith’s lie lives.

In his author’s notes on the play Eady says: “[The play] is a duet between Susan Smith, a woman who needs someone to carry a horrible burden for her, and Mr. Zero, whom she invents to carry it…To keep functioning, Susan needs to keep the truth spinning away from her; she needs to believe (and have others believe) in the fact of Mr. Zero; through him, her crime has no consequences, through him, her children still live. It is Mr. Zero’s job to lead Susan back through her lies to the fact of the car, the water, her children.”

Laura Margolis, the director of this production and the Producing Artistic Director of StageWorks, presents Eady’s powerful two character play on Rubén Arana-Downs spare and surprising set. Harrison Lee, a multi-talented and charismatic performer, is Mr. Zero to Danielle Skraastad’s Susan Smith. I was about to say that Skraastad was too young for the role of Smith, an ironic statement since Smith was only 23 at the time of the crime, but to have become the divorced mother of a three-year-old and a 14-month old by that age takes a heap of living, as they say, and that made Smith appear older and more world-worn that her chronological age by the time international attention came her way. Skraastad looks too fresh, innocent, and pretty to truly inhabit Smith’s soul, and yet she manages some powerful moments of real acting as the show progresses and Smith comes closer and closer to facing the truth.

This is only the second commercial production of Brutal Imagination, the first having been at the Vinyard Theatre in New York City in December of 2001. So Brutal Imagination has already had its New York production, and it is not a work written to be a box office bonanza. Margolis and StageWorks continue their tradition of bring strong productions of new and challenging theatre to Columbia County, for which they are to be heartily thanked.

I mentioned Arana-Downs set, which, at first glance represents an idyllic suburban backyard – lush with green Astroturf and designer lawn furniture, and surrounded by the whitest of white picket fences. But these fences are over six feet high, and they are motorized to swing inward and outward, creating effects ranging from the bars of a jail cell to a literal cage of lies in which Smith imprisons herself. There is a lake and there is a car concealed in the set, both of which are used effectively in combination with Andi Lyons lighting effects and Chris St. Hilaire’s sound design.

I would encourage you to attend Brutal Imagination, even though its subject matter is difficult, because Eady has something new and fresh to say about this sad situation. As a white woman living in a predominately white community, I was afraid that I might feel attacked and unwelcome in Eady’s reality, but I did not. I felt included and enlightened. This is a play that makes you think, and that is always a good thing.

The StageWorks (518-822-9667) production of Brutal Imagination runs through September 22 at the North Pointe Cultural Center (518-758-9234) on Rt. 9 in Kinderhook, NY. The show runs an hour and 10 minutes with no intermission, and is suitable for older teens and adults.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002

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