Company One offers another ambitious take on race, class and gender with the world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s “Splendor,” through Nov. 16 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Instead of the blustering pro wrestlers or video-game ninja girls of recent Company One shows, though, the play focuses on the residents of a changing suburb north of Boston that could be Malden or Medford or a dozen others.
Greenidge samples the lives of 10 characters on Thanksgiving week at various times between 1965-2012. Her fictional Bellington is a familiar place, where random townspeople end up chatting awkwardly in line at Dunkies and the Foodmaster closes to become a Whole Foods. She also gets at subtler, underlying changes, like the way skin color may matter less now than what’s in your wallet.
Greenidge has been a playwright in residence with Company One since 2004. “Splendor” arose from her contribution to the “Grimm” anthology of short plays presented by the troupe in 2010. Her acclaimed previous play, “The Luck of the Irish” (produced by Huntington Theatre Company), was also set in Bellington. She has a deep connection to this terrain, but her wide-angle approach here leaves “Splendor” a bit unwieldy.
We start in 2012 with the return of the prodigal. Fran Giosa (a very good Alexandria Danielle King) married up and got a big house in Weston, but now she’s back in town after a divorce. As the play begins, she’s doing night-before prep for Thanksgiving dinner with her mother, Gloria (a funny Becca Lewis), and her underachieving brother, Anthony (Danny Mourino, also good). Old conflicts quickly arise.
Gloria’s a blowsy piece of work. We learn that her children were the product of her youthful romance with Clive Cooper (James Milord). She’s white, he’s black, and they made a bit of a scandal back in the day. But Clive has been out of the kids’ lives ever since.
For a lot of playwrights that would be enough material for a drama, but Greenidge has created a web of interrelated characters that she sets out to explore while also jumping around in time. Under the direction of Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount, it all plays out relatively clearly, on a bare-bones set – often just a single table in the center of the theater, with the audience all around.
We spend time with Fran’s high school classmates Nicole, Lisa, and Colleen, as well as Mike, who dated one of them before marrying another. Lisa’s father, Dave, chats at Dunkies with Aline, the former guidance counselor who lives with Clive.
Their lives still seem to revolve around a bad autumn in the 1990s, when the younger generation was in high school. Lisa’s brother Davey, a football star, drowned in a tragic accident. Soon after, punky nonconformist Fran made herself a pariah by campaigning to change the football team’s name, the Chiefs. (While the new name won’t insult Native Americans, its own problematic connotations are noted. Go Trojans!)
During their childhood, Gloria told Fran and Anthony that they were dark-skinned simply because they’d been left out in the sun too long as babies — a lie that probably sounded comically absurd even then. Racism hasn’t vanished now just because, as one of Fran’s friends notes, they all voted for Obama. But grief, loneliness, unemployment, financial pressure, and thwarted dreams are more pressing problems in Bellington.
The actors are generally fine, even when contending with shifts of tone and character over the decades. But we get a redacted version of the playwright’s wide-angle vision of the town. We never see Davey, and pivotal events are seldom shown, only discussed by the wounded survivors. Greenidge is hardly the first writer to work that way, but she leaves a lot offstage.
Between scenes, characters pose in contemplative solitude around the edges of the room, as we hear waves lapping a shore and someone breathing. These effects seem to suggest the pond where Davey drowns, but there’s also the beam of a lighthouse sweeping across everything.
It turns out that Anthony once had a job in which he was ferried out into Boston Harbor to maintain a lighthouse there. It’s not a particularly believable hire, and Anthony’s sudden burst of lyricism in telling a story about a lighthouse keeper seems out of character. The lighthouse bits feel tacked on, while setting up a dramatic final visual.
There are other theatrical moments, notably when everyone suddenly eats pie near the end in a symbolic Thanksgiving dinner. But “Splendor” is at its best when it’s most naturalistic, probing characters who seem very much like people we all know.