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LUCE, a compelling thought-provoking probe into reality

Roy Berko

(Member:  American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Lincoln Center is the largest contiguous performing arts center in the United States.  Included in the complex are concert, dance, education, commercial and theatre spaces.  The newest venue is the Claire Tow Theatre, a two-story, 23,000 square-foot space built on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.  The space includes the theatre, rehearsal and office space, and a lobby that opens onto an outdoor terrace surrounded by a new green roof with views of the rejuvenated Lincoln Center Plaza.

The Tow is an 112-seat proscenium space, which is home to LCT3, Lincoln Center’s initiative to produce the work of new artists and engage new audiences.  LCT3 tickets are priced at $20.

The intimate space works well for small shows.  The seating is comfortable but doesn’t completely take sight lines into consideration.  Seats at the ends of the first several rows in the straight line configuration face the proscenium walls rather than being angled toward the stage, thus making for problematic viewing.

The play is receiving its initial staging as part of LCT3.  This is author JC Lee’s first New York production.  Lee is also the writer of LOOKING, a new HBO series.

LUCE probes such issues as the meaning of truth, whether blind love can be destructive, the roles of both negative and positive prejudices on insights, and if early life experiences can set someone on a life’s path which later nurturing cannot overcome.

The date is today in an American suburb.  We are introduced to Harriet, a teacher of cultural studies at an affluent charter school, Amy and Peter, parents of Luce, a high school athlete and honor student who was adopted at a young age from an African nation in the midst of civil war, and Stephanie, an Asian teenager.

Harriet has given her students an assignment to think “out of the box” about a historical figure.  Luce writes about a European 1970’s terrorist in vivid detail.  Without his knowledge Harriet, who has become suspicious that Luce may be harboring terrorist thoughts, inspects his locker and finds three large firecrackers.  Theses are devices capable of large destruction.  She shares her findings with Amy and gives her the essay and the explosives.  Amy does not confront Luce, but puts the items in a place where she used to hide the boy’s Christmas presents.

As the story develops, the liberal parents find themselves questioning Luce’s honesty and Harriet’s intentions.  Amy confronts the shy Stephanie, who supposedly has been harassed because of her heritage and finds out additional secrets that Luce has never shared.

Finally, after not wanting to accuse Luce of transgressions, his parents confront him with their observations.  He has seemingly logical explanations for each incident.  All seems under control until Luce is chosen to give a speech about the effect of culture on individuals and presents a treatise that opens new issues.

A cliff hanging  conclusion in which an explosion at the school and the disappearance of the essay and firecrackers, leads to an unsettling ending.

Some may be upset that Lee does not tie up the play with a clear “he did it or didn’t do it” ending.  As is, we are left with doubts and much fuel for long discussion after the curtain falls.

Okieriete Onaodowan is convincing as Luce.  His easy demeanor, likeability and realistic character development aid in confusing the audience as to whether he has been so damaged by his youthful past that he is a devil in honor student/star football player guise or is a victim of circumstances.

Marin Hinkle presents an Amy who, true to her loving liberal nature, wants to trust her son, no matter the consequences.  Her powerful final scene, of a mother now filled with doubt, is extremely effective.

Neal Huff develops Peter into a man who, though liberal in his views, is a realist.  Is his son a terrorist or not?    Huff convincingly sways in the wind, never breaking, but bending under the pressure of evidence and reality.

Sharon Washington gives a defensive bend to Harriet that makes one wonder whether she is Luce’s friend or foe.  It is that edge which helps bring doubts into the minds of the audience.

Olivia Oguma easily takes on the role of the texting, afraid, Stephanie.

Capsule judgement:  JC Lee’s LUCE is a thought provoking script which gets a nicely textured performance under the direction of May Adrales as part of the LCT3 program at Lincoln Center.  It is a show which should get lots of productions on college and small theatre professional stages.  Lincoln Center is to be commended for developing a space and providing the funding for the development and staging of new works. 

Performance:  Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 239-6200,, Through Nov. 17. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.