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  1. Stage

Review: Racial, sexual tensions combine in taut production of 'Race' at Heather Theatre

TAMPA — For a while now, the Heather Theatre has been one of the Tampa Bay area's best kept secrets. The professional company holds shows in a converted office suite in a nondescript park behind a Popeye's restaurant on W Hillsborough Avenue.

Its selections favor intense content that draws the maximum out of small casts, the actors usually coming from a school the theater runs four nights a week. In a space that can hold about 30 seats, actors don't have to "project," let alone wear microphones. They can just talk.

The latest, David Mamet's Race, accomplishes in this small space what a larger venue could not. The intimacy it offers both invites and repels, as is perhaps appropriate in a play about sexual attraction that has crossed over into rape. That at least is the allegation facing Charles Strickland, a wealthy middle-aged white man accused of assaulting a black woman.

The show officially opens Friday. But a dress rehearsal was more than enough to earn a recommendation. Ward Smith, the Heather's artistic director who is also directing this show, has marshalled four talented actors through the hard contours of Mamet's psychodrama, which debuted on Broadway in 2009 with Kerry Washington, David Alan Grier, James Spader and Richard Thomas.

Charles, played with jittery credibility by Pierce Lackey, represents every benefit afforded by race and economic class. Those things still matter, but the definition of justice has changed since a man in his position could bank on an acquittal.

He's guilty "because of the calendar," says Henry Brown, one of Charles' lawyers, who is African-American. "Fifty years ago. You're white? Same case. Same facts. You're innocent. This is the situation in which you find yourself."

Charles has fired a pricey lawyer who was steering him toward a plea bargain. Desperate, he has turned to the small firm run by his old friend, Jack Lawson, Henry's partner. Susan, a young black lawyer helping with the case, rounds out the ensemble.

The play is an intriguing commentary on the intersection of law and the public's need for a good story, only one of which is supposed to matter to jurors. It proceeds like a trial, with arguments and counter-arguments around race, what Jack calls "the most incendiary topic in our history."

Is Charles guilty? The defense hinges on the amount of red sequins shed from the victim's skirt.

All four actors count heavily, but much of the narration falls to two young veterans.

As Jack, Vincenzo Hinckley, who has also appeared on NBC's Chicago P.D. and Netflix's Bloodline, registers every jagged twist and turn in his body, a shrewd mind playing catch-up to changing facts. Darren Constantine, whose resume includes short films and a recent role as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Heather's The Mountaintop, turns in a studied, exacting performance as the world-weary Henry. They are your tour guides through the social and legal minefields Mamet so enjoys, which extend beyond race to sexism and repressed lust.

Sharell Nichole Williams has some of the trickiest work cut out for her as Susan, whose loyalties come into question. Her no-frills style, avoiding overacting almost to a fault, coincides with Smith's approach and the rest of the cast. Her character contains most of the show's suspense, until with a flourish she shows her cards.

This show isn't for everybody. It's a bit more intellectual than visceral, but deeply engaging all the same. This cast allows you quickly to forget you're watching a play, and isn't that what theater at its best is supposed to do?

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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