By Shelley A. Sackett/JEWISH JOURNAL
Tikkun Olam, as explained in the Mishnah, is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. There are innumerable ways for us to do tikkun olam in our daily lives, each one with the potential to change everything for everyone.
Although it’s unlikely playwright Lynn Nottage had this concept in mind as she wrote the Tony Award-nominated comedy “Clyde’s,” now in production at the Huntington through April 23, its message runs throughout her play.
The setting (and what a set it is!) is Clyde’s, a truck stop café near Reading, PA. More than a way station for the road-weary, it is also a shelter for its four employees, all felons. For the three recent arrivals who need to show a weekly paycheck to maintain parole, it is also their only shot at getting back on track after derailment. Montrellos (Monty), Clyde’s elder statesman, role model and Zen master, supervises this crew.
Under the annihilative command of Clyde, the owner, achieving that goal is an uphill battle.
The play opens with Clyde and Monty (dressed in bright dashiki and kufi) in mid-conversation. He begs her to taste his latest creation, a sublime twist on the grilled cheese sandwich. She blows cigarette smoke in response. Wearing a glow-in-the-dark orange waist-length wig and exterior black corset, she looks like a cross between a deranged Tina Turner imposter and an S&M dominatrix. The effect is terrifying.
Instead of tasting the sandwich, she uses it to crush out her cigarette, just as she relentlessly snuffs out any hint of hope or happiness she senses smoldering.
The staff live in fear of her temper and she taunts them sadistically with threats to make up a parole violation and report them to the police. Behind the kitchen’s swinging door, without her lurking, they are free to connect and actually enjoy their work. Cautiously, they relearn how to trust, revealing what landed them in the slammer. Letitia, a quick-witted, sassy single mom, broke into a pharmacy to steal unaffordable seizure medicine for her daughter. Rafael, a playful recovering addict, tried to rob a bank with a BB gun while high. Jason, Clyde’s only white employee, is covered in white supremacy tattoos and fresh out of prison for assault.
In his role as mentor, Monty is kind, sage and committed to helping his charges survive their difficult transition. Although he doesn’t reveal why he served time until the play’s end, he has clearly walked the same walk.
His trick is the quest to create the perfect sandwich, that “most democratic of all foods.” Sandwiches can be more than the quotidian ingredients they slap between two pieces of bread for the café’s clientele, Monty counsels. They can reflect their creators’ dreams and truths. They even have the magic power to unlock the gate to their salvation. He is living proof.
The others bite, joining him on his pilgrimage. They bond over shared imaginary recipes, light-heartedly chanting ingredients like tantric mantras. After hours, each secretly works out combos that might earn Monty’s approval and, by extension, launch them toward a sense of self-worth.
Clyde doesn’t see sandwiches (or anything else) through the same rose-tinted lenses as Monty. Although she, too, was imprisoned, empathy and tikkun olam hardly drive her to hire only ex-cons. Rather, she uses them as cheap labor to populate her own sort of jail where she reigns as warden to these “loser” ex-prisoners who float in painful limbo between “real” prison and the ersatz one she has created.
Against great odds, and with Monty’s critical help, her employees ultimately free themselves from her grip by banding together and refusing to follow an order they just cannot abide. Although what triggers their rebellion is on its surface comedic, Nottage deftly handles this turning point moment, plumbing it for deeper beauty, poignancy and strength.
Nottage also has a gift for comedy, and under Taylor Reynold’s tight direction, her zingers are laugh-out-loud funny. The terrific actors playing the kitchen crew are an airtight ensemble that breathe life into their parts.
Unfortunately, the same is not true of the unnuanced Clyde. To be fair, Nottage has created a cardboard caricature, giving the actress little to work with. The distraction of her dozen or so wig and outfit changes only emphasizes the playwright’s missed opportunity in not fully fleshing her out.
Which is too bad, because Clyde exemplifies what can happen when, in pursuit of financial gain and raw power, we lose sight of what really feeds and sustains us. Luckily, her crew has Monty, with his belief in the restorative power of the sandwich, to lead by example and show them a better way.
For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.