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      Brutal Imagination
    If he didn't exist they'd have to invent him

    The uncompromising and masterfully performed "Brutal Imagination" follows killer-mom Susan Smith's lie to its conclusion — giving life to the black man she said killed her children and looking into his soul.


    On October 25, 1994, in Union, South Carolina, 23 year-old, Caucasian, Susan Smith, stunned her otherwise quiet town when she accused an unidentified black man of kidnapping her two small boys, 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex. Nine days later, she shocked the entire nation by confessing that she herself had let her car, with the two infants strapped in the back seat, drift deep into the John D. Long Lake, not too far from her home. Almost a decade later, the investigation that took place then, the implications of her lie and the headlines they made, have faded in memory. But not for everyone.

    Written by: Cornelius Eady and Diane Paulus.
    Directed by: Diane Paulus.
    Based on the book by: Cornelius Eady.
    Cast: Joe Morton and Sally Murphy.
    Music by: Deidre Murray.
    Vineyard Theatre
    108 East 15th St.
    Previews start: Dec. 19, 2001
    Jan. 8 - Feb. 3, 2002

    Poetry, court transcripts, news clips and music intermingle in "Brutal Imagination," the new stage adaptation of Cornelius Eady's book with the same title (2001 National Book Award finalist). Beyond trying to explain the reasons behind Ms. Smith's actions, "Brutal Imagination" poses other scenarios: what if, at least during the nine days between the boys' disappearance and Ms. Smith's confession, the black man in her imagination actually existed? What if all the imaginary black men, from Uncle Tom to Stagger Lee, were to think, question, feel, at least for as long as they are being summoned?

    "When called, I come. / My job is to get things done," says Mr. Zero, (brilliantly interpreted by Joe Morton) with a hint of sarcasm.

    "Brutal Imagination," almost entirely written in the voice of Mr. Zero, runs the risk, like most literary works adapted for the stage, of being passive, not "dramatic" enough, or becoming a poetry reading; but longtime collaborators Diane Paulus (director), Deidre Murray (music) and Eady succeed in bringing to life the complexities of this case, its precedents and implications, with originality and wit. The talented cast and team of designers and musicians also rise to the occasion.

      What looks like trash (a broken TV, an old fan, a radio, a desk lamp, chairs, teddy bears, a baby chair, a shopping cart, a car seat) serves not only as the car where the children were kidnapped, but also as Susan Smith's home and other locations.
    On a minimalist stage (Mark Wendland, designer), a clutter of what looks like trash (a broken TV, an old fan, a radio, a desk lamp, chairs, teddy bears, a baby chair, a supermarket cart, a child's car seat) serves not only as the car where the children were kidnapped, but also as Susan Smith's home, a podium and other locations. Dozens of bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling, creating odd shadows. The four musicians are concealed on the left of the stage, playing soft melodies, reminiscent of lullabies. The overall effect is that of uncertainty, of unanswered questions.

    Whether handling Mr. Eady's poignant poetry or the actual court transcripts, Joe Morton as Mr. Zero and Sally Murphy as Susan Smith excel in their performances, especially when the text allows them to confront each other. Although the piece sets Morton up to dominate the scene (and he skillfully does so), Murphy's portrayal of the complex young mother is equally impressive. Joe Morton is particularly versatile — he is brilliant in back-to-back depictions of other imaginary characters such as Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Buckwheat, Stepin Fetchit, Stagger Lee and even the imaginary black man from the imagination of Charles Stuart, the Boston physician who shot his wife in 1989. His identity, as he puts it, is "anyone and none."

    "Brutal Imagination's" fresh perspective on a case that has caused much anger and controversy is worth your time. The speculations it makes on race, loneliness, desperation, are sharp, sometimes sarcastic, witty, sometimes compassionate or angry, but always honest and full of humanity. You'll be thinking about it for a long time after you leave the theater.

    JANUARY 27, 2002

    Reader comments on Brutal Imagination:

  • brutal imagination   from Donna Brodie, Jan 29, 2002

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