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HOME FRONT at Victory Theatre Center

The two central locations of Warren Leight’s play, HOME FRONT, are notable for their sense of confinement. The first is a dumpy, basement apartment on the Lower East Side, remarkable for once having been a funeral parlor. But it’s also the only place that the two central figures of HOME FRONT – a Black U.S. Navy officer and his white girlfriend – can afford and safely use to start their new life together. Scenic designer Evan Bartoletti – also one of the producers of Home Front’s West Coast premiere at the Victory Theatre – infuses the single-room space with a poignant degree of cramp. The light is poor; the furniture is cheap. The couple deserves better.

Home Front locale #2, by the by, is a South Carolina prison cell.

There is beaucoup irony in these mean locations when one considers that the play begins at the end of World War II on VJ day as millions of joyous Americans are celebrating a world that has just opened up to new possibilities. Celebrating alone at a Times Square bar is Lt. James Aurelias Walker (played by C.J. Lindsey), one of the first Black men permitted to become an officer in the U.S. Navy. He meets Annie Overton (Austin Highsmith Garces), a young widow and pharmacist’s assistant who falls in love with him practically at first sight. “On a night like this, anything can happen,” Walker says, sounding both staunchly rooted in his belief and hopelessly starry-eyed. “The world is never going to be the way it was.” In a strong West Coast premiere at the Victory Theatre directed by Maria Gobetti, Leight’s gut punch of a play proceeds to prove Lt. Walker both correct and devastatingly wrong.

Over the last 15 years as he’s been mostly writing and producing for TV, Leight (the winner of the 1999 Tony Award-winning best play SIDE MAN) hasn’t been heard from much on the live stage front. A tweet from an actor looking for plays about interracial relationships reportedly prompted Leight to break out a play that he has been working on for more than 20 years. Sometimes dusty gems emerge out of desk drawers (or hard drives). HOME FRONT is tied to historical events and an era in our nation’s history that should be long in our rear view mirror, but the play still fits smartly into the ongoing discussion over race relations in the aftermath of George Floyd. Walker is a pioneer and a hero who is treated anything but heroically. And – more irony – his greatest “crime” isn’t even his relationship with Annie. He is persecuted simply for being Black which prompts him to turn around and all but destroy a relationship that he should have cherished.

Things move quickly after Annie and Walker’s VJ Day meet cute. The next scene takes place in that aforementioned apartment that Annie is trying to make into a home. James is coming home, but only temporarily. His discharge is delayed – likely for racial reasons – and he now has to serve at a base in South Carolina. Until his discharge comes through, he and Annie can’t live together, can’t get married and basically have to conduct their relationship in secret. Pregnant and left largely alone, Annie strikes up a friendship with a sympathetic neighbor, Edward Glimmer (Jonathan Slavin), a gay former army medic turned department store decorator who will go to great lengths to look after Annie and help the young couple in any way he can.

Matters take a turn when Walker gets in trouble in South Carolina, but he refuses to accept anything other than the honorable discharge to which he feels he is entitled. He is still in jail during the birth of his daughter and when he finally does leave the Navy and make it home, Walker is obsessed with rehashing his case. Plus, he can’t find work. A proud man, he clings to his status as a member of the Golden Thirteen, a group of men who were recruited to become the first Black officers in the Navy. The distinction may have earned him a spot on the cover of Life Magazine. But in the Jim Crowe South – and, yes, even to some extent in New York – his status as a decorated U.S. Navy officer becomes worthless the second anybody lays eyes on him.

Making effective use of the Victory’s small performance space, Gobetti’s production resonates with equal parts intelligence, anger, hope and sadness. The production is nicely paced and makes solid use of an opening video montage (by Jermaine Alexander) and its soundtrack. Leight, the son of a jazz musician, often makes music a vital component of his work and the placement of Nat King Cole’s swoon-worthy ballad, “The Very Thought of You,” allows the performance to conclude on a hopeful note.

The acting is excellent as well. Lindsey and Garces are well-paired, both infusing their characters with a strong dose of idealism which falls away in different ways and at different times as Walker and Annie gradually learn the price they will pay for their relationship. As sympathetic as he clearly is to Walker’s situation, Leight tilts the plot (and the audience’s allegiance) in Annie’s favor and comes close to martyring her to her country’s sins and her husband’s mule-headedness. But in Garces’s steady hands, the character is consistently charismatic, believable and ever hopeful. It’s lovely work.

Embodying the voice of reason, Slavin’s Edward is the best friend everybody wants and deserves. Based on Leight’s real life uncle, Edward may be a gay man, but he has found a way to be less marginalized than a Black man or the white mother of his child. Slavin gets – and nails – all of the play’s funniest lines and he’s also the social and moral compass of HOME FRONT. Playing a character who could easily become smug and insufferable, the actor is the opposite.

Kudos also to Leight and Home Front for shining a fresh light on the Navy’s Golden Thirteen. Learning about those men – whether through a fictionalized account of a post-show Google surf – is illustrative of both how far our country has come and how far we have yet to go.

HOME FRONT plays through February 12 at 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

Photo Credit: Tim Sullens

 

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