Through Saturday, Feb. 29

Pure Life Theatre, Raleigh

A front-porch view of history can be useful in a work like Loving, Peter Manos’s play with music about the 1967 Supreme Court case banning the anti-miscegenation laws that outlawed interracial marriages.

In this Pure Life Theatre Company production, central characters Mildred and Richard Loving (vividly portrayed by Aya Wallace and Sean A. Brosnahan), two narrators (a wry Chanda Branch and a mellow Rodney Martin), and a mischievous composite of Mildred’s seven brothers (JaJuan Cofield) stick too close to home. Though the Lovings had to live in Washington, D.C. for years while their case was in the courts, the only visual references in director Deb Royals Mizerk’s set evoke a barnyard in front of a modest, whitewashed farmhouse.

This staging choice grounds the quintet in rural eastern Virginia, where the Lovings grew up, and gives authority to the close-knit community Mizerk depicts, as does Martin’s live guitar, set to music director Ronzel Bell’s atmospheric, pre-recorded settings of old-time hymns and folk songs.

But these choices and Manos’s overprotective script keep us too close to the front porch for too long. They also keep audience and characters alike at too great a distance from the stark realities of Jim Crow laws in a state still grimly determined to punish a poor interracial couple’s marriage through arrest, imprisonment, and fines in 1959.

We’re told that racism and business still walk hand-in-hand here, though we never see it for ourselves. The ordeal of Richard and Mildred’s initial arrest and trial are condensed in a narrated scene while a chorus sings “Jesus in the Morning.” The dramatic plotting of the appeals process that ACLU attorney Bernard Cohen (an unconvincing Tracy Davis) steers through the Virginia courts is similarly abridged and hymn-swaddled.

In one theatrically threadbare scene, the remarks of an invisible judge are related only through Cohen’s responses. Then come the unbelievably casual arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, bookended by more comforting but dilatory folk songs.

The impact of these scenes is diluted by the suggestion that they’re just stories being told by folks back home, later on. Though the loving parts of Loving are clearly depicted in the central community’s strong relationships, the emotional maintenance of characters and audience is insulating, and the dark sides of this tale still feel untold.

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