American dream turns into nightmare in ‘Rabbit Summer’ at Mile Square Theatre

by JIM TESTA

DAVID WHITE

From left, Tsebiyah Mishael Derry, Steven St. Pierre and Ricki Lynée co-star in “Rabbit Summer” at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken.

Since Kevin R. Free took the reins as the artistic director of Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre in 2022, the company has dedicated itself to exploring the Black experience in America as well as championing new female playwrights. “Rabbit Summer,” now making its New Jersey debut in a four-week run at MST, doubles down on those convictions.

Written and directed by Tracey Conyer Lee, “Rabbit Summer” couldn’t exist without the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. But in the course of its two hours, it addresses much, much more. In this story of three people whose lives are torn apart by the murder of an unarmed Black man by white cops, Lee probes racial stereotypes, the dynamics of Black families, the proliferation of firearms, and the small secrets that can rip apart marriages.

DAVID WHITE

Tsebiyah Mishael Derry, left, and Ricki Lynée in “Rabbit Summer.”

The play has moments of playful sexiness and more than a few laughs to lighten the mood, but this is a drama that sparks uneasiness from the moment we meet its protagonists, and eventually spirals into violence, chaos and ruined lives.

As the play begins, we meet Wilson and Ruby Faison, played by Steven St. Pierre and Ricki Lynée, an “exceptional” Black couple who seem to be living the American dream. He is a detective who pursues white-collar criminals, she is a interior designer, and they live in a beautifully appointed home in a nice neighborhood— the model of the idealized Black middle class. Their young daughter is away at summer camp, and Wilson is hellbent on impregnating his wife and having a son; hence “Rabbit Summer,” a time when the couple can focus on lovemaking.

Their idyll is shattered with the arrival of Claire (Tsebiyah Mishael Derry), Ruby’s childhood friend, whose husband was killed by a white cop for the crime of, as Wilson puts it, “BWB” — Being While Black.” The more levelheaded Ruby has always been Claire’s guardian angel, taking care of her after disastrous liaisons with sketchy men, and now Ruby has inveigled Claire to stay with her while coping with her grief.

Claire, with her long cornrows and casual attire (Wilson nicknames her “Sweatpants”), couldn’t be more different than the more affluent Ruby, with her straightened black hair and elegant wardrobe. Even in a bathrobe and slippers, she exudes class and polish. And it’s not long before Claire and Ruby’s lifelong friendship begins to look more like co-dependency. Claire, for her part, is sick of it; she resents and rejects Ruby’s ministrations. Not to mention that her presence frequently thwarts Wilson’s sexual advances toward his wife.

DAVID WHITE

Tsebiyah Mishael Derry and Steven St. Pierre in “Rabbit Summer.”

And, predictably, there is friction between Claire and Wilson, who —while the archetype of the “good cop” — is a cop nonetheless and, in Claire’s eyes, complicit in the institutionalized racism that killed her husband.

Slowly, we learn more about the characters. Wilson has daddy issues and has cut off his father, a serial philanderer and hustler with children from many women. Ruby wants Wilson to open up about his feelings, to show more emotion and reveal his vulnerabilities, but that’s not manly, in his eyes. Instead, he fixates on a family heirloom, a chifforobe (or armoire) that his great-great-grandfather modified so it could hide fugitive slaves in a secret compartment.

Following Chekhov’s favorite dictum, the chifforobe has an important role to play in act two, as does a pistol we see Ruby hide there.

At the end of act one, we see inside that secret compartment, revealing a shocking secret that completely changes the direction of the play. No spoilers, but Ruby’s ideas of how to solve the gun problem in America take a tragic turn, and the discomfort of the first act is followed by full-fledged nightmare in the second.

Lee raises excellent points about America’s sick fascination with guns, noting, for example, how Wilson’s white cop friends display their pistols and rifles, hung on walls like trophies or exhibited in display cases. Black people have guns too, Wilson notes, “but for us, they’re weapons, not art.”

If there is a downside to the production, it is that the characters often delve into political and social issues with long monologues that sound less like human conversation than MSNBC punditry. This play overflows with ideas, and that’s a good thing, but at times, the characters sound as if they’re making speeches directed at the audience, not speaking to each other.

That said, the evening flows briskly, especially after the breathtaking reveal at the end of act one. The production doesn’t feel too long, and that is an achievement for two hours-plus of theater consisting primarily of dialogue. The cast provides flawless performances that propel the narrative with honesty and emotion. Like a perfect triangle, the three actors support and balance each other so that one character never overshadows another.

As always, the Mile Square Theatre company has done an outstanding job with sets, lights and sound. The Faisons’ bougie living room, the play’s only set, perfectly reflects the characters’ lives and aspirations, and incidentals — the ringing of cell phones, the wailing of police sirens — add to the realism.

“Rabbit Summer” will run through March 30 at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.

Remaining performances are scheduled for March 13-17, 20-24, 26-28 and 30. For a chance to win two tickets, send an email to njartscontest@gmail.com with “Rabbit” in the subject line. In the email, please specify which show (or shows) you are interested in attending.

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