Spring Killing encompasses all the good, the bad and ugly of post-segregation America with a twinge of dark humor. Currently showing at The Delray Beach Playhouse, the play is a classic “whodunit” game of clue.
With all the dialogue and thrill of a good murder mystery, Spring Killing leaves the audience grasping at straws to understand all the characters’ layers as the truth is peeled aside.
It’s not a new play, according to playwright Julie Gilbert. She said she stuck it away in a drawer years ago after trying again and again to reconstruct the piece.
It wasn’t until the Delray Beach Playhouse’s director, Randy Dellago, asked her if she had any other shows they could put on that Gilbert went back to her old work.
“I didn’t want to do a very heavy play full of murder and mayhem,” Gilbert said in a phone conversation with the South Florida Times. “It took two years and I had different readings with various actors to understand and develop it with different cast people.”
Some of the actors who provided their feedback included a pre-stardom Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones, for the lead male role of Everett Freeman. Gilbert said they each added their own input in developing her male lead, played by local actor Tony Thompson.
But the life experiences of seeing racism and segregation first hand come from her own upbringing, from when she stayed with her grandmother, whom she called “gaga,” in a large, two-story home with an attic in the middle of Manhattan.
“We had someone serve guests and work in the house,” Gilbert said. “As a child, I must have had a strong sense of social justice….’’
Gilbert said she did not think it was right that the workers lived in a smaller dwelling behind the main house. She said she always befriended those who worked for her family.
When she was older, she experienced the newness of being in an interracial relationship at 16, when she introduced her black boyfriend at a family dinner party.
“Even the maid was shocked,” Gilbert said. “I’ll never forget the looks on their faces when they saw he was black. Everyone just froze.”
Set in 1977 in a small town in Connecticut, it’s the same year as the release of the groundbreaking TV mini-series, Roots.
The nation was entering into an era of adjustment and transition, and in the midst of all this, one house in Spring Killing is dealing with the murder of an African-American woman.
Everett Freeman is a former handyman of the manor, and is the police department’s number-one suspect because he found his wife, Loretta, stabbed to death.
In his search for her killer, Freeman comes back to the home in which he worked for 15 years, and confronts many faces from his past, including the elderly matriarch of the household, Effie Wolff (played by Renee Martins), with whom he has a love-hate relationship.
Lacy Carter plays Wolff’s granddaughter, who is in love with Freeman’s son. Merry Jo Cortada plays the nurse, and Mark Hetelson plays the police detective who closes in on the killer. Freeman, knowing he is the number-one suspect, hides in Wolff’s house.
“It was just after integration,” Thompson said. “African-Americans were liberated, but they did what they had to do; smiled, did the work the employer told them to.”
But Freeman understood he was free, and he would prove it to his boss by giving her his opinions and correcting her manners. She could no longer tell him his place.
In patterning the play after her own life, Gilbert said she remembered how the older women in her grandmother’s house acted when the African-American handyman came over to work around the house.
“A lot of the women would get all dolled up and would wear frilly dresses and put on fresh lipstick and curl their hair; it really seemed like he excited them,” Gilbert said.
“They acted sort of silly and discussed what they were going to give him and treated him as an honored guest.”
Thompson’s performance thro-ugh thick and thin never offers any hint to the audience that he is or is not the killer.
But, skeletons start falling out of closets, and more than one character is found to have a motive. The motives begin to weave out in the story like dirty laundry.
Could it be the charming handyman, looking to get out of a bad marriage, a resentful young woman, a condescending matriarch or an alcoholic nurse?
You’ll have to find out for yourself.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: World premiere of the play, Spring Killing.
WHEN: Show times are through April 13. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Also, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th Street, Delray Beach.
CONTACT: 561-272-1281, ext. 4. Box office is available Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.