In Gloucester Stage Company’s “Reparations,” Reg Ambrose, a Black budding novelist burdened by the pain of the past, seeks to get his book published no matter the cost. His ticket to fame might rest in the hands of his one-night-stand, Ginny Pleasance, an older white editor, but his journey turns out to be more circuitous and explosive than he hoped.
Their night starts innocently enough. The two meet at a book launch party that ends in a romantic romp in Ginny’s Upper East Side apartment with its book-lined shelves and seasonal rotation of silk flowers. But the night of passion and romance quickly turns sour when Reg spills a dark secret the morning after. That secret does far more than possibly ruin what may have been an aborning romance if circumstances were different. It, or rather Reg, demands atonement, and the incident sparks the overturning of many stones, perhaps too many for one play.
Initially, there’s lots of initial talk about race. Reg (Jason Bowen) calls Ginny’s move to bring him home “one powerful historic paradigm.” She quickly responds with “I am not your rapacious white oppressor who dragged a young Black victim into her boudoir.”
But Ginny (Angela Pierce) does share that she didn’t feel comfortable about the possibility of going to his place in what she assumed would be a fringey neighborhood. She then earnestly asks Reg how he makes ends meet as a freelance travel writer. “Ain’t it obvious?” he replies. “Street crime. Stick-ups in the ‘hood. Drug dealing.” Their back and forth elicits laughter, knowing head nods, and sometimes a few gasps. However, race isn’t really what this play by James Sheldon is about.
Later, the arrival of an interracial British couple, Alistair (Malcolm Ingram) and Millie Jacobs (Lisa Tharps), brings a welcome change of pace. Ingram and Tharp’s natural chemistry, lilting accents, and light-hearted banter help enliven the overstuffed story at first. Alistair, an old friend of Ginny and her late husband, is influential in the publishing world, and Ginny has invited them over for lunch to introduce Reg.
Before the meal, Millie, who is from Nigeria, and Reg connect. He tells her about his travels and speaks a few words in her native tongue. Soon though, instead of eating paella and conversing about the manuscript over wine, the gathering becomes a trauma-packed visit that spins in multiple directions. Wrongdoing, privilege, and willful perseverance get examined through various lenses while accusations are hurled. And sympathy, it seems, is hard to come by, even from those who should probably be eager to give it.
Every few minutes there’s a new atrocity revealed before there’s time to process the last, leaving little room for character development. However, what is clear is that life’s challenges affect everyone regardless of race or socioeconomic status, even if those factors inform how a person deals with those difficulties.
After the tumultuous day ends, Reg and Ginny’s final moments together are tender, hopeful even despite all that’s occurred.
But the production spurs more questions than answers.
What does justice look like? How much does it cost? Who should pay up? And once the debt is paid, does pain still prevail? Audiences will have to decide that for themselves.
Play by James Sheldon. Directed by Myriam Cyr. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company. At Windhover Performing Arts Center, 257R Granite St., Rockport, through Sept. 19 (outdoor performances). Tickets $15-$54. 978-281-4433, gloucesterstage.com/reparations