The title of Stephen Belber’s Don’t Go Gentle is neatly packed. It alludes, of course, to Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” with its invocation that those facing death should “rage against the dying of the light.” And going gentle—going soft—is exactly what Lawrence (Michael Cristofer), a retired widower with stomach cancer, seems to be doing in the play. After decades as a righteously merciless judge, he takes on pro bono legal work for a young black woman, Tanya (the compelling Angela Lewis); soon he is treating her and her strapping teenage son, Rasheed (Maxx Brawer), like the children he never had. This does not sit well with the aimless, resentful children that he did have: Amelia (Jennifer Mudge), a stagnant housewife, and Ben (David Wilson Barnes), a jobless divorcé with a history of drug abuse.
Lawrence’s newfound compassion has an edge of desperation, and Belber is deft at dissecting the personal and political jumble involved. In his generosity toward Tanya and Rasheed, Lawrence is partly atoning for his years as a cold, stiff jurist and father. But in a way, he is also affirming his conservative respect for their potential to rise (with his help) above disadvantaged pasts—in contrast to his own kids, whom he considers spoiled. If Belber offers food for thought, however, his seasoning occasionally seems off. Several scenes, and many of the one-liners, feel forced; to my taste, Don’t Go Gentle does a bit too much of its thinking out loud. Although Lucie Tiberghien gives it a solid staging for MCC Theater, one misses the moments of grace that lifted Belber’s lovely 2010 Dusk Rings a Bell above its own tilt toward verbosity. The play delivers a fine bop on the head, but could sometimes use a gentler touch.—Adam Feldman
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