Mark St. Germain’s involving play “The Best of Enemies” stars two of the angriest characters you’re likely to see on stage.
As the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, N.C., C.P. Ellis hurls invective, using words that can’t be printed to build even greater support among his followers.
Ann Atwater is an African-American civil rights activist, and if her language is a little tamer, her fury and hostility toward white people are just as strong.
They each carry weapons — a rifle for him, a bible for her.
Somehow, when an official from the Department of Education comes to figure out a way to desegregate the public schools, these two become unlikely allies, almost friends, working toward a common good for their children.
The whole thing sounds preposterous, but St. Germain’s play, now at Florida Studio Theatre’s beautifully renovated Gompertz Theatre, is based on a true 1971 story and a book by Osha Gray Davis.
While the play and Richard Hopkins’ production are at times heavy hitting, it is an inspiring story, suggesting that if these two people can work together, there’s hope for the rest of us. Change is possible, but it has to start from within each of us.
The play highlights the idea that people on different sides of an issue or problem can come together if they only have a chance to meet and get to know one another. We aren’t all that much different, but we are different.
Sheffield Chastain plays C.P. as a bitter man, upset that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed before he could do the job during a planned visit to Durham. But he subtly reveals something behind the hatred, a fear of the unknown, and how his world might change if he softens his views.
As Ann, Stephanie Weeks speaks at a loud pitch through much of the play. It’s irritating at first until you realize that Ann believes she has been ignored so long it is the only way to be heard. Weeks also conveys other layers of emotions beneath that brassy exterior in the way she defiantly plans her feet on the ground or talks about her troubled life.
They are joined by an engaging Kevyn Morrow as Bill Riddick, the man who brings them together for a series of forums. Morrow plays a wise manipulator, who knows which questions to ask or buttons to push.
Amanda Duffy as C.P.’s wife, Mary, is softer yet just as bitter as her husband. But she softens as she thinks about the future for her children.
The production is staged on an attractive and suggestive set designed by Bill Clarke, with brick and barn-like wood walls that become offices and homes with the addition of chairs and tables and establishing projections on a rear wall.
Lynda Salsbury’s costumes and Rob Perry’s add to the period look and the intense level of emotions.
Some of the developments come too easily at times, as though a scene or two were missing leading to the shift in attitude. But maybe that’s all it takes, a moment of realization for C.P. and Ann to use their anger for the betterment of their community.