There’s nothing like a nasty real estate battle to enflame racial hostilities. Kirsten Greenidge puts the match to one such bonfire in “Luck of the Irish,” a play that observes a family of African-American social strivers trying to get a toehold in a white suburban neighborhood of Boston in the late 1950s. The scribe makes an ambitious effort to follow up on that initial racial conflict some 50 years later. But this misguided production doesn’t do much for the material, which also received developmental support from the Huntington Theater Company in Boston and the South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Arbitrary casting and odd acting choices initially make it hard to tell who’s who and what’s what. Why is one young thesp awkwardly playing the role of a much older character? Why is another thesp giving a streetwise ghetto edge to the privileged daughter in a black professional household? And how come her engineer husband looks like a thug?
Even the physical stagecraft seems at odds with the point of the play. How can a near-bare stage and an abstract, luridly lighted set — with a bilious green Astroturf floor, no less — conjure up the warm image of a gracious family home that both the wife of an African-American doctor and her Irish neighbor desperately want to make their own?
Once the mind throws up its hands and doesn’t try to make sense out of these and other inconsistencies, the story of Dr. Rex Taylor (Victor Williams) and his wife, Lucy (Eisa Davis), comes into sharper focus.
The Taylors have long yearned to move out of their congested black neighborhood and into a spacious home in a nice suburb. Money is not an issue, but race is, and as African-Americans, the Taylors are used to being turned away by real estate agents.
To break that pattern, Dr. Taylor arranges to pay a poor Irish family to “ghost-buy” a house for them. With six hungry kids to feed, Joe Donovan (a finely etched perf from Dashiell Eaves) is happy to have the cash, and he’s charmed by smart, classy Lucy. But his wife, Patty Ann (Amanda Quaid), is a bitter woman who resents the black couple for jumping several rungs ahead of her on the social ladder.
Years later, the Taylors have died and left the house to their granddaughters, Hannah (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Nessa (Carra Patterson). But the still-envious and ever-spiteful Mrs. Donovan is determined to claim the house as her own.
Greenidge carefully knits past and present-day scenes into a balanced drama about lingering racial animosities that refuse to die. But although Eaves brings an air of quiet yearning (and a fine Boston accent) to the younger Joe Donovan, the other performances are so dispassionate (or, in one critical role, so mannered) that there’s no emotional conviction behind their words.
It’s only when Jenny O’Hara takes the stage at the end of the play as Mrs. Donovan, now grown old but still clinging to her old grievances, that the themes of the play take on a truly human dimension. The lines of dialogue are powerful in themselves, but it’s O’Hara who conveys the anguish behind the words, the inarticulate pain and confusion of a woman who feels that she and her family were “skipped over” in the natural order of social advancement.
Once O’Hara gives voice to one character’s raw pain and naked yearning, you can’t help wondering what other riches might be buried and still to be mined from this play.