By John Lyle Belden
It is interesting when a theatre, for its show during Black History Month, stages a production that gets us to think about race in a bigger context than the typical American struggle of black/white. Such is the case with “The Cay,” on the upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 26.
Adapted from the Theodore Taylor novel by Gayle Cornelison, and directed by Richard J. Roberts, the two-person drama is told from the perspective of a white boy, Phillip (Dalyn Stewart), who has the adventure of a lifetime. It is 1942, and living in the Caribbean, he sees World War II as an exciting novelty. As the island of Curacao is home to a Royal Dutch Shell oil refinery, German U-boats lurk nearby. This fact goes from fascinating to frightening when one sinks the ship taking Phillip home to America.
The boy is pulled onto a makeshift raft by an old black man, Timothy (David Alan Anderson). Being from the Virgin Islands, he knows how to survive on the open sea, and later, upon the small island (the “Cay” of the title) where the raft is carried by the tides.
But their survival is complicated by two factors: Phillip being blind to his own white privilege and spoiled state, and being literally blinded by a head injury. Even without physical sight, he “sees” Timothy as “Black” as a cultural state of being, something fundamentally different than himself. Over time, Phillip’s inner vision is corrected as the old man teaches him lessons in self-reliance he will need in the coming tests.
Anderson is brilliant as always in his role, and Stewart is a revelation as he more than keeps up with his costar. A lot is put on his shoulders, being narrator as well as one of a two-person cast, and Stewart handles it with Tom-Sawyeresque charisma. (Or Huck Finn, if you wish, given the obvious plot comparisons.)
The other “star” of this production is Stew, the cook’s cat on Phillip and Timothy’s ill-fated ship, which ended up on the raft with them and as a companion on the island. Rather than wrangle a real housecat (with its own diva demands), scenic designer Eric Barker molded some common kitchen items into a metal cat which the actors move around as needed – sound designer and composer Matthew Tibbs provides violin-string “meows” when appropriate.
After the opening night performance, Roberts and Barker said the cat design inspired them to make other aspects of the set, including the towering palm trees and the fish the characters catch, constructed of the metal flotsam and jetsam of life that wash up on distant shores. The result is a strangely beautiful stage and unifying visual theme that fits the story perfectly.
Find the IRT downtown at 140 W. Washington St.; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.
John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.