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Wild and witty ‘West of Central’ gets a stylish premiere at Pillsbury House in Minneapolis

September 19, 2018

When Thelma Higgins gives folks the finger, the gesture is unmistakable but sly.

Its part of the act of showing them her ring. Thelma (Austene Van) is half of a wife-and-husband private investigation firm in 1966 Los Angeles, and she often meets people who doubt that shes a lady detective (or dick, as they say with surprise). Shes peeved because being a Mrs. is not the only way for a strong, smart woman to have status.

Thelma and her mysterious husband Vernon (Harry Waters Jr.) are at the throbbing heart of West of Central, Christina Hams clever and breezy nod to Thin Man crime novelist Dashiell Hammett that premiered last weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.

The action begins when a woman bursts into Thelmas office to warn her that Vernons life is in danger. June Franklin (Olivia Wilusz) is the rebellious daughter of wealthy real estate mogul Sidney Franklin (Stephen Yoakam), who has disinherited her. June seems to know more about Vernon than his wife does. For that, and other reasons, shes a marked young woman.

The two-act plays title invokes South Central Los Angeles a historic black neighborhood where peoples dreams have been impacted by the building of a highway, restrictive real estate covenants, redlining and a host of other systemic ills. Hams work doubles as homage to black Los Angeles and to the film noir genre.

Her writing, poetic and lyrical, is suffused with playfulness and wit. Sometimes, in fact, that gorgeous writing sounds a touch self-aware. Maybe the actors relish Hams words so much that they dont want to lose any syllables as they enunciate lines that are still settling into their bodies.

Theres much to cheer in director Hayley Finns imaginative production, which has cinematic spark and smooth choreography. The opening scene involves a cigarette being lit in the dark as lights come up on Thelma in her office. Van and Waters move like stylized dancers.

Staged with a lush jazz score by sound designer Katharine Horowitz and an artful set by Joel Sass, the show has an appropriately dark palette, as barred light (designed by Michael Wangen) shadows the characters.

The principal performers do lovely work. Tack-sharp and self-assured, Van packs heat. Shes well matched with Waters, playing an enigmatic man with whom Thelma thought she had a natural bond. Vernon operates on many planes at once and Waters cultivates a sense of mystery.

Yoakam, known for playing Shakespearean monarchs, brings gravitas to his role as a genial Machiavelli who may reward someone or kill them. He keeps us guessing while Wilusz, as Sids feral daughter, moves with the adrenaline of an express-lane driver heedless of the danger around her.

The cast is rounded out by Brian A. Grandison, as Sids smarmy, self-satisfied right-hand man; Theo Langason, wittily deadpan as a black L.A. policeman who wants to make detective; and Aimee K. Bryant as a woozy woman grieving a family member shot outside the detectives office.

Mysteries abound in Hams play. But the quality of this beautifully executed new work should be no secret.

rpreston@startribune.com 612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston

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