InterAct Theatre Company has established itself as a daring production company, eager to take on hot-button social issues and support the careers of emerging Philadelphia playwrights. Little Lamb — on stage at the Adrienne Theatre through June 28 — marks the inaugural production of the company’s bold 20/20 New Play Commission Program, which aims to produce twenty new plays during the next six seasons from playwrights that focus on social issues of the next twenty years.
Little Lamb, by playwright Michael Whistler, brims with the hot topics of the day. An interracial gay couple, a childish but successful Caucasian man named Denny (Ames Adamson) and his calming Latino partner José (Frank X), seek to adopt a baby from Ashlee (Katrina Yvette Cooper), a young African American mother. Aiding their cause is social worker Cathy (Kaci M. Fannin), a black single mother who helps white parents adopt African American babies though she sometimes struggles with the idea of interracial adoption herself.
Despite her own misgivings about Denny’s understanding of racial issues and the seriousness of his commitment to parenthood, Cathy persuades Ashlee to give her baby to a white father, without informing her that Denny is gay. When the baby’s ultra-religious paternal grandmother, Francie (Cathy Simpson) steps into the picture, Ashlee becomes convinced that she made a mistake giving up her child.
Whistler’s script fails to negotiate the surfeit of issues packed into the play. Denny’s race seems to upset Francie and the other women in the play as much as his sexual orientation does, blunting one of the play’s key messages: that the plights of African Americans and LGBT Americans are connected. There are other flaws: Ashlee’s motivations for giving up her child then wanting it back are unclear; Francie’s religious feelings come off as a sinister caricature; and it is difficult to feel sympathetic to any character except the woefully underdeveloped José.
Frank X is perhaps the best actor on the Philadelphia stage (he won a Barrymore for his performance in InterAct’s Lonely Planet and shone in the company’s Kiss of the Spider Woman and in roles for the Lantern Theatre), so it really is a shame he is given so little to work with in Little Lamb. Adamson, making a welcome debut to Philadelphia theater, shines in a more fleshed-out role, excelling in a flamboyant first-half performance in footsteps trod by Nathan Lane and Sean Hayes, and adeptly handling Denny’s dramatic second-act outbursts. At times, director Seth Rozin can seem a black box genius, finding wonderful uses of small space. His skills are inconsistently applied in Little Lamb and the lack of movement hinders hesitant performances by Cooper and Fannin.
InterAct sets itself such a very high bar, shunning Shakespeare, musicals, or easy comedy pieces to produce provocative plays by new and contemporary playwrights with little drawing power. The company’s success using this model is praiseworthy and its seasons are always eagerly awaited by fans of cutting-edge drama, but Little Lamb is a case of ambition outstripping realization. In a time when liberal pundits blame a high African American turnout for the passage of California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, the issues raised in Little Lamb deserve a better outlet.
What you need to know: InterAct Theatre Company performs at the Adrienne Theatre at 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia PA, 19103.
Published by Philly2Philly.