Caroline, or Change (Syracuse Stage, 2012)

Syracuse Stage’s production of Caroline, or Change is practically perfect in every way – a moment of theatrical grace to be savored and then treasured in that place we keep our most precious memories. Admittedly, I was in a unique position to appreciate the production: I’d spent the previous evening being aurally bludgeoned by a touring production of Les Miserables, and the movie adaptation of The Help is up for several Oscars this weekend. Caroline, or Change (first developed in 1999) is like the anti-“Help”; or if you prefer, it’s like The Help if its creators didn’t think the civil rights movement was the product of a few enlightened white people.

I’m reluctant to share too much, because some of the production’s magic comes from surprise; also, because words don’t convey the fullness of the experience. For example, the audience enters to a preset stage – deep blue backdrop framed by the suggestion of trees; later, we notice that the roots of those trees are part of the set. We hear night sounds – frogs and crickets. As the house lights go down this becomes the overture. Next, Greta Oglesby’s voice (Caroline), warm and deep, and alone. She begins wordlessly, just intoning while working. Then she sings: “Nothin’ ever happen underground in Louisiana…” and THEN the orchestra comes in for the first time. It’s breathtaking, not only because the moment is perfect, but because it’s perfectly executed. (How did she pull it off? It wasn’t the last time I wondered over the course of the evening.) Soon, Kushner adds a singing washing machine, schooling Disney in anthropomorphism – it’s neither cartoonish nor outlandish, but ineffably right that the objects surrounding this woman as she works are part of her internal dialogue. All of this in the first few moments, and the surprises keep coming.

Those who see a lot of theater are used to the inherent unevenness of the medium – a great performance might stand out, or some decent lighting, or a unique approach to staging. Rarely does an entire creative team work together as seamlessly as in this production. There wasn’t a weak performance; particularly, Ms. Oglesby’s Caroline, Seamus Gailor’s Noah, and Stephanie Umoh’s Emmie are miraculous. The lighting and sound are among the best I’ve experienced at Syracuse Stage. The set is simple and effective, and full of delights that are better experienced than described (that moon!) The costumes are just right on the human characters and richly evocative on the rest (that moon!) The stage direction is unfussy – we’re never too aware of mechanics as the scenes melt into one another, and overlap. One highlight of Act I is how we’re told of JFK’s murder: the juxtaposition of acting, music and staging brings something entirely new to the moment, using poetry, iconography, lighting and percussion to create a moment of nightmare clarity.

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori came up with something wonderful by setting a simple memory piece to through-sung music. The oddly complementary sounds of gospel, Motown, klezmer and Christmas carol (among others) are often sung on top of one another. The singers and orchestra must work together precisely to pull it off, and they don’t have the comfort of verse-chorus to fall back on. Young Mr. Gailor is astonishing in his ability to not only find the notes and nail his melodies, he also displays precocious comic timing while hitting every mark of his staging.

My companion and I spent half our drive home discussing the meaning of the title. It keeps evolving as the piece goes on, and it keeps opening up long after. I was ready for the show to end after the final bittersweet exchange between Caroline and Noah; I was uneasy as Ms. Umoh took center stage for the coda. It turns out, this is the ultimate meaning of Caroline’s change: the legacy she passes to her children, and their own opportunities as a result. I tried twice this morning to describe the final moments of the production, and my throat closed and tears welled. As Emmie sang, I saw in her eyes and heard in her voice a pure expression of hope, the best possible result of change. It was a transcendent finish to a wonderful evening.