Actress and playwright Nora Cole has returned to Geva Theatre for "Katherine's Colored Lieutenant" at Geva's Fielding NextStage. Cole previously appeared before Geva audiences with "Fences" (2009) and "You Can't Take It With You" (2012). In "Lieutenant," Cole weaves a narrative from the fabric of her own family: the true story of her Aunt Katherine, a Louisville school teacher, and her Uncle Robert, a teacher turned Tuskegee Airman, falling in love, going to war, and falling apart. Despite all of Cole's best attempts, "Katherine's Colored Lieutenant" is an ambitious production that never really gets off the ground.
The play jumps through time, opening with Nora-as-herself-as-a-baby, to Nora as an adult, then flashing way back to Katherine as a child, "Lieutenant" finally anchors itself around the changing social landscapes of World War II America, where the smitten young lovers, Katherine and Robert, are to be wed. When Robert is drafted plans are postponed, and to the chagrin of Katherine, Robert is convinced that a wedding must wait until after the war. She is left behind to wallow in loneliness while her fiancé enthusiastically assimilates into the armed forces. Over the course of three years the two steadfast lovers predictably begin to drift apart, witnessed through letters (the actual source material for the play) that are read at great length.
Though certainly a troubled production, plenty of good is happening here. Cole's writing is original and ambitious. Nora-as-herself-as-a-baby, waiting for her christening, curious about her aunt and uncle, is a fantastic introduction that quickly adopts the audience as a member of her family. As the narration develops, the plot gets a bit trickier. Nora jumps in and out of different characters at various points in time, and though mildly dissonant, the results are impressive. The narrative style calls back to Philip Roth's "American Pastoral," with Roth jumping into Zuckerman who jumps into the Swede. As "American Pastoral" shows Roth's range as a writer, "Lieutenant" reveals Cole's range as an actress: baby, young lover, staunch old aunt, lounge singer. Cole uses every inch of stage available to her, and despite her long, indulgent monologues (which could easily be trimmed), it's still fun to watch her in the zone.
The set design is also a stand out. Caleb Wertenbaker (scenic design) and Emily Stork (lighting design) have created a masterpiece. Antique and almost whimsical, desks are stacked upon tables stacked upon dressers, with piled paper on shelves and fabric shooting out of drawers. On the opposite wall, gaudy fabrics and lace fuse into open books, which become wallpaper, and like a wave, the feeling is that it's all about to crash. The same wall becomes a screen for a projector through various scenes, adding another layer of rich complexity that, unfortunately, mirrors the story maybe a little too well.
Robert is played by Michael Early, a stage and small screen veteran and graduate from Yale's School of Drama, who surprisingly disappoints. Too many important moments are lost to his fumbling of dialogue or poor line execution; at times, the production I saw felt less like opening night and more like a dress rehearsal. (Cole herself broke character within five minutes of the play's ending to ask an audience member to "stop recording," effectively killing any goodwill the performance had left.) One can assume that Early's performance will improve before the show ends its run on February 22 but, regardless, an utter lack of chemistry between Cole and Early needs to be addressed.
Early is not all to blame here; there are moments where he genuinely shines (Robert watching the "picture show" was delightful), but the script never sells their relationship. We are told that they love each other, but we never see it. Within seconds of meeting Robert, he's whisked away to war and everything after feels contrived.
Overall, "Katherine's Colored Lieutenant" is a play pushed into prime time that wasn't ready. In the least, the audience has a beautiful stage to look at during an indulgent exploration of Cole's family, an exploration that feels less like a riveting tale and more like a thorough dissertation in need of an editor.