Kathleen McGhee-Anderson’s “Venice” is not set in Italy but in Southern California, in the once-fashionable seaside town that deteriorated into a fiercely threatening network of mean streets for several decades before being largely reclaimed by gentrification. Plagued by financial woes and limping through a dismal season, Crossroads Theater Co. redeems itself here with a play of some promise and merit.
Selected by Crossroads founder and artistic director Ricardo Kahn prior to an extended leave of absence, “Venice” is a two-generation tale that manages to effectively tell a sprawling narrative of two families — one white, the other black — bound by tragic circumstances and old wounds. The play has a cinematic thrust that spans three decades.
Tank (Noel Johansen), a racist white policeman, is allegedly shot by teen Leon Mobly (Keith Josef Adkins), a restless, confused and frightened black youth. Tank, whose wife is awaiting the birth of their first child, is ultimately paralyzed from the waist down, and is reduced to a bitter, self-pitying life in a wheelchair. Leon’s mother, LaBrea (Kim Brockington), is an African-American parent and the long-suffering wife of Roland (Ray Anthony Thomas), a Vietnam vet whose life has been ravaged by the effects of agent orange and whose dreams are plagued by the horrors of war. Unable to hold a job or support his family, Roland takes to the streets as a homeless drifter. Flashbacks to a jungle war zone reveal that Roland shared the last moments of Tank’s late father’s life.
A busy play about redemption and racial tolerance, “Venice” is often muddled by its shifting focus, but it all comes firmly together quite acceptably. McGhee-Anderson’s writing has a rich poetic flavor, and her characters are interesting and vividly drawn.
The performances are for the most part apt. Brockington brings a real sense of urgency to the pivotal role of the wise and comforting LaBrea, and Thomas, as the scarred war vet, invests his role with tragic and gritty honesty. Timothy Douglas has staged the play with a firm hand that comfortably navigates the time changes.
Unfortunately a garish set saps the strength and focus of the drama. A busy mural offers a cloudy orangy seaside panorama of children at surfside under the watchful eyes of detached, weary adults. All the props are confined to the shopping cart of the homeless Roland. It’s a clumsy device — especially when someone reaches for a ringing telephone — but it seems appropriate, considering the overpowering distraction of the designer Michael Schwikart’s vast impressionistic canvas.