The two lovers in Hansol Jung’s “Cardboard Piano” exude a sort of dewy, innocent, urgent love that recalls Romeo and Juliet. As the play opens, they are hiding out in a Ugandan church. With a tape recorder as their witness, they speak their wedding vows.
Love, of course, can be a dangerous and messy thing, especially when the naively betrothed are two 16-year-old women in a place as homophobic and fraught as war-torn Uganda, circa 2000.
As the story unspools at Actor’s Express, the world comes crashing in on Adiel (Isake Akanke), the Ugandan dreamer, and her soul mate, Chris (Ashley Anderson), the daughter of missionaries preparing to leave Africa.
When injured child-soldier Pika (Stephen Ruffin) and a second marauder (Rob Demery) storm the church, the women’s fragile, unlikely romance will be violently and tragically torn asunder. Alas, Jung’s tale, directed here by Karen Robinson, feels tentative and slight, particularly in the slow, plodding first act.
Thankfully, things pick up a bit in the second half, which occurs about 14 years later, when Chris returns with her father’s ashes and finds a man named Paul (Demery) pastoring the church.
Chris and Paul share a past that is unbeknownst to his wife, Ruth (but not the audience); to me, that conflict feels richer and deeper than anything that happens prior. And yet their cat-and-mouse game can’t redeem Jung’s patchy, poetic storytelling, which is shot through with images of gaping holes and hearts and ideas about love, hate, faith and forgiveness.
It’s no consolation that Paul and Ruth enjoy the kind of marital sweetness that might have belonged to Chris and Adiel. Even more troubling, with the arrival of Francis (Ruffin), there’s more evidence of Paul’s rage and homophobia. In his past, he was a murderer, in his present a hypocrite.
Akanke, Ruffin and Demery all do a nice job with the uneven material, and Anderson is especially compelling as the rattled Chris.
However, in part because of the casting, I find the story confusing and oddly tepid, given the passions on display.
On the one hand, it’s nice to see a gay rights agenda play emerge from unexpected territory. On the other, the wandering souls who populate the story are so shadowy that they almost feel like strangers — to themselves even.
At the top of Act 2, we find Paul rehearsing a sermon about the good Samaritan. How ironic is that? As portrayed in this dark, Camus-like drama, kind, trustworthy neighbors are as rare as diamonds. Enemies lurk in the shadows, and often within.
Ultimately, the bittersweet, borderline absurd notes of “Cardboard Piano” are poorly strung together and dissonant. Altogether, a lost opportunity for Actor’s Express.
Through Dec. 3. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $20-$40. Actor’s Express, King Plow Arts Center,
887 W. Marietta St. NW, Suite J-107. Atlanta. 404-607-7469, actors-express.com.
Bottom line: Love and war can be messy. In this play, a bit too much so.