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‘Far From Heaven’ musical mines 1950s American racial mores for drama

Kevin C. Peterson | 10/2/2014, 6 a.m.
‘Far From Heaven’ depicts an interracial affair against the backdrop of 1950s suburban Connecticut.
Maurice Parent and Jennifer Ellis in Far from Heaven.

The angst and tragic dimensions existing between Cathy Whitaker and Raymond Deagan in the musical drama Far From Heaven (presented by SpeakEasy Stage company through Oct.11) seems as much about the gulf between two star-crossed lovers as it is a view into the unfortunate circumstances of race and class in 1950s America.

Cathy (played splendidly by the talented Jennifer Ellis) lives in upper middle class Hartford, Connecticut with her white friends, possessing all of the accoutrements of refined, white Americana — married with two kids and living a life replete with dinner parties, museum openings, fabric shopping, receptions, expensive perfumes, girly group lunches, vacations to Miami and a negro maid.

Raymond (rendered earnestly, with intelligently packed passion by Maurice Parent) is black. He lives in the section of Hartford that Cathy’s friends say does not really exist — so far is it from their communal orbit and concern.

A widowed father of a young daughter, Raymond encounters Cathy as he assumes ownership of his recently deceased father’s landscaping business, taking up the gardening work at her well-appointed home.

After Cathy realizes her husband’s secret sexual predilections — and an initial platonic liking to Raymond — her life is jolted into uncertain turmoil. The facade of her social life collapses, spiritual ennui sets in; self-questioning floods in about her identity as a white woman and an American.

“The racial part is there and there is conflict drawn from it, but this [play] is a little more subtle also, which makes it a little more dangerous,” Parent said in a recent interview with the Banner.

Noting the blues-based downbeat of the drama, Parent adds, “I think it says that just beyond racism, in the end, we are all just people. We want to be seen. We want to be recognized as individuals in the world.”

Far From Heaven is directed with crisp precision by Scott Edmiston and guided very ably by musical director, Steven Bergman, whose alternative uses of jazz and show tunes presented dramatic tonal juxtapositions. David Connolly’s choreography is effortlessly executed as characters move through various scenes with spare, seamless simplicity.

The mid-sized ensemble of 18 actors populates the play with solid performances, especially Jared Troilo, who portrays Frank Whitaker, the tortured, closeted homosexual and husband of Cathy.

Sophia Mack, a local prepubescent thespian, plays Sarah Deagan, Raymond’s daughter, with confidence and realistic poise.

As the title of the play suggests, Far From Heaven makes no pretense about racial utopia in America. It explores the idiosyncratic arch of race and class with a knowing sobriety.

The play also conveys much about the human condition and the high existential cost to be paid in finding true love — or rejecting it flat out — a plight particularly suffered by Cathy.

The play finds its heroic moments in Raymond’s willingness to move beyond the parochial constraints of skin color into vistas that are truly telling of the human heart.

Like Sethe’s character in relation to Paul D in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, Raymond is simply poised to be a friend to Cathy’s “mind” — a spiritual soul mate seeking to transcend caste and color in America, desiring, for its own sake, to be together with someone in love.

Far from Heaven runs through Oct. 11 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For more information or to purchase tickets, see www.speakeasystage.com.