Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Pittsburgh Playwrights | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Pittsburgh Playwrights

This is a celebration of how a brilliant playwright at the top of his game can levitate an audience

Tami Dixon and Chrystal Bates in Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Pittsburgh Playwrights
Tami Dixon and Chrystal Bates in Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Pittsburgh Playwrights

There is a major artistic event happening in Pittsburgh and you’ve got two weeks to do whatever it takes to get yourself to it.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. presents the world premiere of Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, by Pittsburgh Playwrights artistic director Mark Clayton Southers and based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.

Strindberg’s 1888 drama is set in the kitchen of the country estate of a Swedish count whose daughter Julie, a spoiled and perhaps slightly mad young woman, fixes her gaze on the master’s valet, someone with his eye on the main chance. Their twisted relationship is the heart of this classic of naturalistic theater.

While Southers tips his hat to a few of Strindberg’s elements, he’s really created a work solely his own; Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is “inspired by” — rather than an adaptation of — Strindberg.

Southers resets the story on a tobacco plantation in Reconstruction-era Virginia. The owner is dying and his daughter Julie, a woman with a decidedly messy past, has returned home to “take over” the family business. The action is set in a cabin on the grounds, the home of John, the butler, and his common-law wife, and cook, Clarissa.

Strindberg’s psychosexual dynamics are very much in evidence, but Southers has taken the issues of class and power and blown them through the roof. After all, even the lowliest servant in 1888 Sweden had more autonomy than a black servant (and former slave) in 1888 Virginia.

But that’s just Southers’ opening bid, as it were. Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is not just a rumination on the racial history of the South (and, by extension, of America). This is, above all, a tremendously theatrical event — a celebration of the enormous and unique power of drama and how a brilliant playwright writing at the top of his game can levitate an audience.

That sounds a bit gushy, I know, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a new work written with such invention, audacity, assurance and just plain theatrical know-how. This is the play that those of us who are Southers fans (of which I am one) have been waiting for him to write. Yes, there are certain fixes to be made and perhaps here and there his voice falters, but it’s sort of mind-boggling to consider the artistic and commercial potential of this play.

It’s rare that performers get a chance to sink their molars into parts this good, and under the firm direction of Monteze Freeland, the Pittsburgh Playwrights cast attacks with gusto. Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown and Tami Dixon — it’s like a Pittsburgh acting Hall of Fame — grab onto their roles and with outstanding talent ride this play to the end.

I could go on at length about their performances but — and not to slight them — the news here is that Mark Southers has written a play that is destined for greatness.