Seemingly unbridgeable gulfs exist aplenty in Kwane Kwei-Armah’s Let There Be Love. Divisions due to race, age, sex, sex orientation, immigrant status, and class along with serious parent-child conflicts threaten at times to keep each of our three principles islands unto themselves and at other times to pit two against the third. Stir into this mix a terminally ill senior man with an increasing death wish; a young immigrant woman being seriously abused by her boyfriend; and a 30-something daughter who is jobless, maybe homeless, and very bitter about how life (mostly her Dad) has treated her. And yet, all these troubled ingredients somehow add up to a story that is often funny, totally engrossing, and very touching.
Alfred is a elderly, former Caribbean, now English gentleman who lives alone in a big house full of decades-old fixtures like knitted doilies, an afghan-covered sofa, a globe-opening bar of liquors, and a console stereo complete with albums from the ‘50s and ‘60s (all part of Daniel Ostling’s excellent set). We learn quickly Alfred’s health is failing as we note the wheelchair in the corner, his bouts of coughing, and the constant rubbing of his chest. We also quickly see how he and his daughter Gemma, who drops in to convince him to accept some home help, have a love/hate (with more emphasis on the latter) relationship. He is upset she is not more successful and ambitious; she is just mad, mad, mad at him for a list of disappointments that have taken her a lifetime to accumulate. Throughout most of the play, their interactions end with his demanding she leave after both of them have shouted and cursed themselves hoarse.
Entering this scene is Maria, a recent Polish immigrant who has been hired by Alfred’s two daughters (one of whom we never meet) to watch after him on a daily basis. The former immigrant Alfred immediately rejects her and begins lashing out at how immigrants are now ruining his country. (Sound familiar, America?) But out of the blue, a peacemaker mediates and transforms their relationship into what will become a loving, mutually life-altering bond. Nat King Cole himself is that intermediary whose lyrics and smooth tones rise from the stereo to connect their wide gulfs and even to inspire needed actions of dilemmas each faces.
While we were looking forward to seeing one of my favorite actors, Carl Lumbly, in the role of Alfred, we were actually very fortunate to experience the outstanding performance of Understudy Adrian Roberts (whom we immensely enjoyed a year ago as Dr. Martin Luther King in TheatreWorks’ The Mountaintop). Never missing a beat and with a Caribbean/English accent that spoke with great authenticity, Mr. Roberts stepped into the role with great aplomb. His creaky, cranky, cursing Alfred did not fool us or Gemma (the amazing Donnetta Lavina Grays) as we and she soon peeled back one by own his frowns and protestations to find a heart aching for love and attention, a man with generous spirit, and a man full of stories and wisdom. Ms. Grays’ Gemma is a mixture of angel and fairy godmother who seems to know just what to do to make Alfred’s daily life easier and even joyous and how to heal in these last days his aching heart of past regrets and present disappointments. When Gemma and Alfred are on the stage together, there is a magic that happens that was all the more wonderful the night of our performance in that it seemed that these two particular actors had been doing these parts together for weeks, rather than just performance or two.
As the daughter Maria, Greta Wohlrabe is also very convincing in her obstinate, persistent dislike of her father. Bit by bit, we learn some of the whys and wherefores. Ms. Wohlrabe displays less breadth of character development than the other two (who also have much more stage time together), and I found it difficult to believe her Maria would take so long to move an inch in closing the gap with her aging, obviously sick dad. Her main mode of expressing herself is too often stomping, child-like fits. When she does transform to an emotional state more expected of this sick man’s daughter, the lateness and abruptness of character switch is almost too much to believe.
A story that begins with so much clashing of what often appear as irresolvable differences in the end is really a story about love. Love emerges in many forms and factors among both the seen and some key, unseen players. The resolutions that occur have to be taken on faith, for we do not see their being played out. It would be easy to be skeptical that so many years of built-up resentments could melt away so quickly, but then we come back to Gemma, our miracle worker. For this play really to work, we must endow on her the same faith that Alfred and even eventually Maria do; and I for one was quite willing to do so. Gemma totally convinces me that genuine love and care can work a miracle or two and can bring peace. The final result for me: a tear or two, a deep sigh, and a fulfilled night at the theatre.
Rating: 5 E’s