by: Michael Bracken
For all its false flourishes, including sleepwalking, a ghost, and two would-be adolescent angels, Come Back Up, by Sarah M. Duncan, has a remarkably true soul. Stripped of all its accoutrements, the play, at the Gym at Judson, is an affecting study of the love between a mother and a son.
The son (Buddy, played by TJ Tarpav,) is intellectually challenged, making the mother’s (Letta, played by Tai Verley) protectiveness and devotion all the more acute. And he, like her, is black, heightening her concern for his well-being in a world where African-American men are marginalized.
Buddy’s other mother and Letta’s former partner (Nicole Kontolefa), is in town for her brother’s wedding. Clara stops by Letta’s because her intuition tells her something is wrong.
Clara finds blueprints for wings in Buddy’s room. They cause her concern because of the extensive media coverage of the deaths of two girls, wearing wings, nearby. It becomes fairly evident to her and Letta that he was involved in the girls’ death. In his room, Buddy talks with a young girl, Hatty (Amber Avant), his sister who died as a toddler.
Buddy eventually confesses to his mothers. While he doesn’t say so, it t was Hatty, hoping to fly but taking no chances, who goaded Buddy to create the wings and enlist the two test-pilots.
Because Buddy told them they would fly, the two girls, headed upward, instead went downward through thin ice into a frozen pool. Their deaths were unintentional, to be sure, but Letta knows how easily a white jury might overlook that. And she’s heard what prison is like for a young boy.
Just before Buddy’s confession, Clara’s girlfriend Jessamyn (Amber Bogdewiecz) appears, not quite trusting Clara alone with Letta. Jessamyn has good reason to be suspicious; before she arrived, Clara had made a tentative pass at Letta.
Jessamyn quickly assesses the situation and is adamant that the police be called. Extremely uptight with self-righteous religiosity, she provides some comic relief in her rigidity. She grows to like Buddy, but justice must be done. For every crime there is a punishment. No exceptions.
The play’s truthful resonance is effected in large part by its more than able cast. The integrity of Tarpav’s performance as Buddy is stunning. His childish manner of speaking, penchant for mini-fits, and ability to entertain only one line of thought at a time ring clear as a bell. His struggle between Hatty’s orders and loyalty to his mom is affecting.
Verley, first seen as a somnambulist at the top of the show, sometimes settles for the easy acting choice, but for the most part her performance matches Tarpav’s in its authenticity. She’s best when interacting with him, a mix of frustration and ardor. Kontolefa juggles Clara’s mixed emotions with dexterity. As Jessamyn, Bogdewiecz is appropriately annoying, and Avant sweetly devious as Hatty.
Derek Miller’s set is inventive and complements the play beautifully. We see three rooms of Letta’s house, Buddy’s bedroom and a living room upfront and the third, presumably Letta’s room, over a jagged wall that has been cut down to a height of only a yard or so to allow visibility. Furniture is nondescript. Miller lights his set with subtle simplicity. Jillian Robertson’s direction is smooth and seemingly effortless.
Duncan’s script is strong but cluttered. The Letta-Clara-Jessamyn triangle is a little forced, sometimes more of a distraction than an integral part of the plot. But Tarpav’s Buddy is a beam of light. The young actor thoroughly inhabits the skin of his well-written character. And he never overplays Buddy’s disability. Buddy seems like a boy whose intelligence is some years behind his age, nothing more, nothing less.
Through August 30, 2015 at The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street. http://comebackup.brownpapertickets.com. 85 minutes (no intermission).
*Photos: PJ Norton