Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s production of “Caroline, or Change” is a beautiful, necessary and visceral work of art. I cried three times. And I will probably pay to see it again.
“Caroline” was not the show I expected it to be. Neither was its protagonist. After interviewing Director Bryan Conger and lead actress Joy Ducree Gregory two weeks ago, I knew a few things. I knew the washing machine, dryer, radio, moon and bus are all played by people. I knew it’s a show deeply rooted in memory and imagination. I knew Caroline is a sad character. And I knew the story is all about change.
But I didn’t know the washing machine would feel like a wise, kind aunt. I didn’t know the dryer would emanate both sensuality and fear. I didn’t know the moon would feel so disconnected from and yet sympathetic to the humans below.
The way these imaginary characters sing, riding in and out of Jeanine Tesori’s score, creates an atmosphere of authentic human experience that’s better than realism. In the hot, damp basement where Caroline spends her days doing laundry as a maid, the audience is given a window into the way Caroline thinks and feels about and remembers her past — a window Caroline can no longer offer to real people.
When she sings in that basement and is joined by the washer’s song, the radio’s song and the moon’s, it’s like seeing bright colors painted right next to each other — distinct and yet blending in the mind’s eye to create something real, fresh and relatable.
I also didn’t know a sad, angry and hopeless protagonist could be so compelling and inspiring.
I don’t think we see enough characters like Caroline onstage. She was so very real. Ducree Gregory does an incredible job. The show is worth attending on the basis of her final song alone. The maturity, dignity and responsibility with which Ducree Gregory brings Caroline to life as a three-dimensional and complex woman who yes, is sad, is powerful.
The entire cast is phenomenal. Their onstage chemistry was a bit slow to start, but once they found their groove, I didn’t care; I was just there with them, completely absorbed in their world.
Kesimy Martinez stood out as Caroline’s oldest daughter, Emmy. Martinez has a unique presence — an understated confidence and spunk, and an expressive voice with impressive control. Christian Lattimore and Henry Gregory IV are delightful and completely unaffected in their acting as Caroline’s two younger sons, Jackie and Joe. Michael Bertino is endearingly awkward and boyish as the son of the Jewish family Caroline
The last thing I did not know, going into this show, is that the change this story is really about is a kind I’d never seen onstage before. The story is set in Louisiana, 1963; the number of political and social changes going on outside of Caroline are numerous, and those are addressed. Then there’s pocket change; I won’t say more than that this kind of change is important to the story, and to one particular relationship. Lastly, there’s this other kind of change: “That’s how Caroline will change — that’s how Caroline will rearrange herself.” Caroline sings out these words in the show’s most beautiful and heartbreaking moment. To understand this last kind of change, you have to see the show. It’s more than worth it.
CFRT invites the public to attend a pre-show conversation focused on the civil rights movement May 18 from 6:30-7:15 p.m., facilitated by Reverend Cureton Johnson. This event was made possible because CFRT received the prestigious NEA “Art Works” Grant for “Caroline, or Change.”
The show runs through May 28. Tickets cost $15-$25 and can be purchased by visiting www.cfrt.org or calling (910) 323- 4233.