White People

In a time when divisions—political, ethnic, socioeconomic—drive wedges between people at every turn, playwright JT Rogers' work is timely beyond words. Ironically, it's Rogers' way with and choice of words that makes this piece so extremely uncomfortable, shocking us into a state of self-evaluation as we sit in the darkness, safe on our side of the footlights. His characters, their racial makeup clearly evident from the show's title, battle with what may be genetically coded feelings forced to the surface by their particular life paths. Martin (Tom Knickerbocker) is a high-powered East Coast attorney whose firm has transferred him to St. Louis to straighten out a branch office. Mara Lynn (Avery Clyde) is a North Carolinian housewife whose only son suffers from a rare medical condition. Alan (Mark Doerr) is a young, New York–area college professor whose bright-eyed optimism is literally and figuratively assaulted.

Director Douglas Clayton and his cast elevate Rogers' words, be they damning or mundane, to perfection. The actors handle Rogers' format, a 95-minute one-act series of monologues, so expertly that the resulting stories seem to be uttered out loud for the very first time. Doerr's delivery is astonishing in this regard, as his character wrestles with an internal barometer born of his position in liberal academia. Meanwhile, Clyde captures the heart-wrenching duality of a woman mourning the lost opportunities of her past and that of her never-to-be-cured child. Knickerbocker's quintessentially stiff-backed legal lion is dramatic characterization at its finest, demonstrating an ultimately tragic devotion to the business at hand.

As Clayton guides this trio in and around scenic designer Helen Harwell's gray-colored set of geometric shapes and fragmented sections made of bars, their stories unfold with increasing intensity. Harwell's design provides depth for the eye yet maintains the focus on the actors whose characters struggle with their individual fears, prejudice, and, in some cases, life-altering guilt. And following the movement at every turn, as though illuminating the darkest recesses of their souls, is Christian Epps' beautifully rendered lighting design.

Presented by the Road Theatre Company at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. May 21–July 10. Repertory schedule. (818) 761-8829. www.roadtheatre.org.