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Diana Grisanti's River City is a pleasant surprise 

New relevance for a new play

A year ago, when Diana Grisanti's River City was first presented as a staged reading at the nuVoices Festival at Actor's Theatre, the script irritated me more than it delighted me. Grisanti's protagonist, Mary Christopher, seemed to be obsessed with an archeological excavation into her family's past — to the detriment of her career, her partner and the unborn child gestating in her womb. I disliked Mary for her self-absorption and had no interest in seeing her story reprised in a fully-staged production.

Despite my reservations, Grisanti's drama proved to be the favorite of nuVoices audiences and my fellow judges, so it earned the full staging that I dreaded. And guess what? With the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, still looming large in our rearview mirrors, what Mary discovers in Louisville seems far more relevant — and far less personal and antiquated — than it did a year ago.

The shock of her father's death and the realization of how little she knows about him send Mary on her quest for more of Edward Christopher's backstory. The only African American at the orphanage where he had grown up, Ed had married a white woman — an inclination similar to Mary's, since she is wed to Javier, who is Latino and on the verge of opening an ambitious restaurant, parleying his marginal fame as a celebrity chef on a cooking network.

Branded as a troublemaker, Ed barely avoided expulsion from the orphanage by Father Schroeder, through the kindly — and conniving — intercession of a sympathetic nun, who helped the teen gain after-school employment at a radio repair shop on the other side of the tracks. Placed in charge of the shop by his sickly father, Whitney Deeley is more concerned about the welfare of his community than he is about developing the family business.

Now there's another parallel with Mary, who leaves Javier and her teaching job in the lurch to travel to Louisville to investigate. We're constantly shuttling between current-day Chicago and 1968 Louisville during Act 1, and it seems like the balance of the action has shifted southward, either because of recent events in Ferguson or discreet rewriting by Grisanti. Or both, since I've heard that there were rewrites right into the rehearsal process.

You see, Whitney and his shop are at the center of the 1968 uprising organized by African Americans in response to police brutality. When we revisit Louisville in Act 2, the past has fast-forwarded to 1974, and things have changed for the worse in both the neighborhood and at Whitney's store, the customary pattern in the wake of grassroots rebellions. When Mary screws up enough courage to actually visit the wrong side of town, Deeley's shop is gone, replaced by a sterile mini-mart where a surveillance camera watches her every move.

She finally takes this step because of Javier's prodding. How much of director Ann Marie Costa's efforts at making Mary more likable this year were channeled toward Kayla Carter, now playing the role, and how much took the form of appeals to Grisanti is impossible for me to say. But those efforts have certainly paid off handsomely. Carter makes us see the guilt of the belatedly devoted daughter as clearly as we see the willful, irrational wife, so a new growth curve emerges.

Edward, Whitney and Javier may have also been tweaked since I last saw them, for I find myself ready to see their stubbornness in a better light, one that encourages me to detect some admirable determination. I find it harder to judge between Ed, who has painstakingly calculated the reasons and benefits for moving the repair shop to a more promising part of town, and Whitney, doggedly determined to make his stand in his neighborhood despite the downturn in his business.

Jeremy DeCarlos and Jonavan Adams are nicely matched as the flashback combatants. DeCarlos probably has the more daunting chore as Ed, playing Mary's father as both a child and an adult, and he's emphasizing the gap more than he needs to. The contrast between the two men is best in Act 2, when their differences boil over. Adams is wonderfully nuanced as Whitney, with a definite chip on his shoulder as he toils in his father's store, yet he has a definite soft spot for Ed and his initiative — and for Ed's sweet sponsor, Sister Alice, who ventures into the dangerous side of town to bring him business.

The gap between Deeley's age at the beginning and end of Act 2, now 40 years, will keep swelling until the math forces Grisanti to fix Mary's actions in time as firmly as her father's. Meanwhile, Adams is bridging the four decades beautifully, bringing freshly human significance to a phrase that had begun to seem passé: "hope deferred."

With so many of Grisanti's characters more agreeable, Polly Adkins no longer steals the show as Sister Alice, yet her warm and plucky performance as the nun is funnier than ever, largely because Tommy Foster as Father Schroeder is such a mean, bigoted and irascible foil. It took me awhile to buy into Matt Cosper as Latino, but when Javier chucked his conceit and chased after Mary down to Kentucky, he won over. His arrival actually becomes the springboard for a denouement that I found unexpectedly profound and moving.

The next edition of the nuVoices Play Festival has been nudged into 2015, scheduled for Jan. 15-18. With an end result like River City from the most recent nuVoices, the whole transformative process has become more compelling.

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