Matthew Reddin
“Broken and Entered”

Three neighbors vs. the past

This captivating tale of burglary, real estate and revenge, the latest from MCT, effectively tackles racial and class dynamics.

By - Oct 1st, 2012 04:00 am
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Wally (Andrew Edwin Voss, L) and Vern (Jonathan Leslie Wainwright, R) plan to reinvent themselves by stealing items from others’ homes in “Broken and Entered.” Photo credit Mark Frohna.

The first few moments of anything are critically important. So when Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Broken and Entered begins in total darkness, with a team of penlight-wielding burglars fumbling around on set, you know you’re in for something different than your average piece of theater.

The play, written by Kurt McGinnis Brown and cultivated in MCT’s Montgomery Davis Play Development program, tells the story of two brothers, Vern (Jonathan Leslie Wainwright) and Wally (Andrew Edwin Voss). They live off their dead mother’s debit card in their childhood home. They also break into rich people’s homes to steal pieces of those lives for their own. In the process, they cross paths with Jamila (Marti Gobel), a wealthy black woman who also grew up in the now African-American neighborhood and is looking to buy up its properties for development.

Desire to change the past drives all three characters. Director Suzan Fete wisely put that desire at center stage. To Vern, the way to change is to get rid of everything they own and replace it with the things of the people they want to be. For Jamila, personal change is not enough. She needs to change the neighborhood as well, in retribution for the way her family — the only black family in the neighborhood), back in the day — was treated. Wally, torn between the two, wants nothing more than to run away.

But this push for change cripples them. It’s like the phrase “Don’t think of an elephant”: The more Vern, Wally and Jamila try to forget their past, the more they can’t stop thinking about it, and the more it sucks them back into the darkness of their childhood. It’s almost painful to watch Broken and Entered, because it’s hard to watch them needlessly suffer.

Jamila (Marti Gobel, L) and Vern quickly come into conflict over their different methods of changing their past. Photo credit Mark Frohna.

The characters’ interactions, however, are easy to watch. Brown has a gift for writing conversation, and the near-hypnotic dialogue carries you along.

That gift is a double-edged sword; the pace carries us through the play at a speed that makes it hard to connect with the characters initially. By the second act, though, the play seem to better fit the pacing, as longer, more chaotic scenes supplant the short, brisk episodes of Act 1.

The most admirable thing about Broken and Entered is its rare exploration of the tension between racism and classism, as opposed to the more common tensions of racism or classism. Throughout the play, Wally discusses race with Jamila or class with Vern. Vern and Jamila cross swords over which is the more serious social problem, and that’s when things get interesting. According to Brown, class drives the one the play, but I’m not so sure. Gobel makes a powerful case otherwise.

The neighborhood is more of an antagonist than the characters themselves. In J Branson’s smart set design, haunting trees surround a house with an ominously half-missing back wall.

As much as Vern, Wally and Jamila try to blame one another and society at large for their problems, the weight they feel is really their past.  They want to relive it, alter it, shed it, but in any case just can’t let it go.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Broken and Entered runs through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $31-$36, and can be ordered at (414) 291-7800 or their online box office.

Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s comprehensive TCD Guide to the 2012-13 Season. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera. 

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