Theater

Ocean State Theatre Pulls No Punches

A drama filled and thought-provoking production in Warwick

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Remember the story of a hotel maid’s alleged assault by a businessman at a chic hotel? Before the disturbing case was dismissed, it made international headlines. And long afterwards, accusations lingered in the court of public opinion. Race, a tense drama by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, concerns a similar subject. It premiered on Broadway in 2009, preceding the New York v. Strauss-Kahn scandal by over a year. Whether Mamet was prophetic or the tale all too common, Race offers a timely, provocative view on power and prejudice.

Race takes place in an attorney’s office. Partners Jack and Henry and their associate Susan debate whether to take on the case of Charles Strickland, a wealthy, middle-aged, white man accused of a terrible crime against a young, black woman. As with most Mamet plays, the audience gets thrown into the ring right away. The writer of Glengarry Glen Ross does not pull any punches, and his script comes out swinging in an aggressive exploration of racial stereotypes, social psychology and the criminal justice system. As Henry says, “The Law, Mr. Strickland, is not an exercise in metaphysics, but an alley fight.”

Amiee Turner, the Producing Artistic Director of Ocean State Theatre Company, helms the current production of Race. She aims to stage shows that trigger thoughtful discussion, as she hopes this one will. Rather than define the play’s message on the issue of racial relations, she notes, “I think Mamet’s brilliance is to see all sides of it, and to present it in a very objective manner. And therefore it forces the audience to think about it and make their own decisions about what the piece means.”

After five seasons as the producing arm of Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, Turner and her team recently repurposed a vacant garage in Warwick into an impressive, state-of-the-art theatre. Now in their inaugural season, the group’s new Jefferson Boulevard space provides ample opportunity for innovative staging. During their last show, an energetic production of the rock musical RENT, they used the back wall of the building as part of the set. For Race, Turner expects to minimize the stage and close off the proscenium a little in the process of creating an appropriately intimate setting.

“I think David Mamet is really good at writing private conversations,” Turner observes of the playwright’s dialogue in Race. (His rapid-fire, realistic, decidedly adult style is so distinctive that it’s often referred to as “Mamet speak.”) She continues, “when we feel like we’re behind closed doors, we do speak differently. I think David Mamet really allows the characters to embrace that freedom.” In Race, Mamet challenges the audience to address preconceived notions on serious, sensitive issues. He doesn’t suggest any simple solutions, and his tone ranges from cynical to antagonistic. But director Turner points to the passion of Mamet’s characters, and the sincere friendship he depicts between the two male attorneys, as evidence of hope. She explains, “It’s the amount of respect they have for each other that allows for the freedom of being so open and honest with each other. I suspect that part of what he’s doing is saying, until we can have a really open and honest and respectful dialogue about our feelings, how are we ever going to get past them?”