Director Sara Lampert Hoover’s production of “Neat” at the Kitchen Theatre shines as a complex American coming-of-age story with a set that consists of only a few hanging pictures, a wardrobe with two outfits and a cast of one woman.
The autobiographical story follows Charlayne (Karen Pittman) through her childhood and teenage years as an African-American girl growing up in the ’50s and ’60s with the help of her aunt Beneatha, also known as Neat. As a baby, Neat was given a harmful
liquid that caused her to become mentally handicapped. Charlayne tells her story by reliving moments in her life that include visiting her Southern grandparents as a child, living in a mostly white New York town as a teenager and learning to embrace her roots as a high school student. As the actress works through the narrative of her character’s life, she effectively transitions her voice and physicality to match that of her loved ones and creates the intriguing illusion of multiple actresses on stage.
Pittman shows her skill as an actress by embodying both the changes she went through as a child and an adult as well as the mannerisms of the people around her. When telling the story from her great-grandmother’s perspective, she arches her back, squints her eyes and slows and deepens her speech to show her age. When reliving memories from her childhood, she widens her eyes, smiles from ear to ear and uses more simplistic phrases. This visual transition made the story easier to follow by making the characters more distinct.
When transitioning into Neat, Pittman’s entire body language shifts. She bends her arm up, makes a fist and plasters on a smile in a stock portrayal of a person with mental handicaps that leaves some audience members uncomfortable. Still, her expression and voice gives viewers a clear image and depiction of Neat. Pittman’s overall ability to embody so many
different characters of different ages and with contrasting personalities makes the production an engaging experiment in theatrical storytelling.
As the play moves through time and location frequently, the lighting helps create each setting despite the lack of scenery. The stage features only five hanging picture frames and a single chair, which brings attention to every minor detail in the set. In a scene where Charlayne describes experiencing snow with Neat, blue and white lights flood the stage and create an illusion of snowfall that helps make the memory more realistic. This use of lighting further develops the setting and distinguishes between the different narratives.
The lighting is also used to transition into different time periods and settings. Lighting designer Ed Intemann shows the beginning and end of different narratives by fading the lights to match the mood of each segment. The music is historically accurate, but the generic songs chosen to represent the different time periods didn’t relate to the events in the memory they introduced. This aspect of the production took away from the emotional intensity of the story by introducing an unrelated element.
Charlayne’s clothing in the play changes only once — during the play’s intermission. The actress begins the performance wearing a neutral top with her hair straight and down, but ends in a patterned shirt, bell bottom jeans and a curly bun. The progression of Charlayne’s story is contradicted by the costume choices, as she looks younger in the second act, which focuses on her as an adult rather than a child. This causes confusion about the character’s place when the story ended.
Pittman’s performance showcases her level of talent and commitment to the characters she was playing and make the one-woman performance a worthwhile production for people of all ages.
“Neat” will run through Sunday at the Kitchen Theatre. Tickets are $25 for students and $32 for adults.