The Playgroup LLC, a Boca Raton community theater company dedicated to showcasing new scripts by area writers, is fortunate to have found Todd Caster. And Caster is fortunate to have come upon the court case of Buck v. Bell.
Recognizing the dramatic potential in the trial of a mentally impaired young woman fighting for her right to not be sterilized by the commonwealth of Virginia, he mined it in a straightforward, but satisfying way. The Playgroup gave Caster’s play, Broken Angels, a developmental reading in the troupe’s early years and now returns to the work for a full production.
It was 1927’s Buck v. Bell that tested the legalities of eugenics, a belief in gene pool improvement that was acted on with sterilizations. (Spoiler: Such forced medical procedures continued until 1979.) While the case is startling on its own, it has resonances to contemporary battles over reproductive rights and Nazi racial purification experiments.
Caster skillfully harnesses the inherently involving nature of courtroom drama, with its interplay between lawyer and witness as well as lawyer versus lawyer. He is on less firm ground outside of court, when his efforts to humanize Carrie Buck, the woman warehoused in the Lynchburg Colony for the Feebleminded, come off as less authentic. Fortunately, the trial is 90 percent of the evening.
So theatergoers can feel free to arrive at the Willow Theatre in Sugar Sand Park a little late, thus missing a clumsy prologue performed in the dark, some awkward narration by the actor who will portray Carrie’s attorney and a strident scene between Carrie and Alice Dobbs, the woman who reluctantly takes her in as a foster ward.
The play, and director Brian Reeves, hit their stride in the courthouse as Brian Dever as defense lawyer Irving Whitehead and playwright Caster as prosecutor Aubrey Strobe interrogate a parade of colorful witnesses. Chief among them are Scott Travis as an expert witness from the Carnegie Institute with a bias toward eugenics, Bruce Allen as Carrie’s uncaring doctor and Rachel Swanzy as Carrie, who takes the stand in her own behalf in a climactic exchange with the attorneys.
Dever and Caster are the standout performers, aided by the fact that they have the most dimensional roles with the best dialogue. Still, they each occasionally overact, as if playing to the unseen jury or, at the Willow, the non-existent balcony.
Quibbles aside, The Playgroup fulfills its mission here, putting Broken Angels up on its feet and giving Caster a production to evaluate his script further. Here’s hoping this is not the end result for the play, but another step in its evolution.
BROKEN ANGELS, The Playgroup LLC at the Willow Theatre, 300 S. Military Trail, Sugar Sand Park, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Nov. 12. $25. 561-347-3948.