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Theater review: 'Milk Like Sugar' at the La Jolla Playhouse

September 8, 2011 | 12:44 pm

Milk Like Sugar
The title of "Milk Like Sugar" refers to the powdered variety purchased by food-stamp recipients, but its symbolic aspects reach well beyond socioeconomic realities. So does Kirsten Greenidge's trenchant seriocomic look at a pregnancy pact among three African American teens in its absorbing La Jolla Playhouse production.

The play opens in a tattoo parlor, where 16-year-old Annie (Angela Lewis, a find) readies for her first ink, a birthday gift from her best friends. She wants a ladybug -- her nickname and another of Greenidge's well chosen metaphors -- but defensively aggressive Talisha (fiercely committed Cherise Boothe) and bubbly, pregnant Margie (appealing Nikiya Mathis) are less enthusiastic.

Their raw-tinged, hilariously acute colloquy soon reveals the narrative engine: to have unconditional love in their seemingly predetermined, "sexting"-dominated lives, Talisha and Annie will also get pregnant, so that they can enter the baby registry together.

Except that preternaturally bright Annie, despite her attraction to astronomy-minded Malik (fine-tuned J. Mallory-McCree), is ambivalent. One reason is tattoo artist Antwoine (charismatic LeRoy McClain); another is born-again would-be friend Keera (imposing Adrienne C. Moore). Yet the key complication is Myrna (Tonya Pinkins, vivid as ever), Annie's bone-weary, overbearing mother.

Thus, "Milk Like Sugar" spins out a parable as potently universal as it is specifically topical.

Greenidge, a writer of rare lyricism and dramatic punch, wields her exceptional gifts to lift "Milk Like Sugar" beyond the "ABC Afterschool Special" traps its premise might suggest. The poetic flights and 'hood idiom carry a heightened authenticity and grace, and the plot combustions alternately rock and hush the house.

Credit director Rebecca Taichman, who stages "Milk" with the propulsion of a musical while never losing the viscera at its heart -- even the scene transitions carry dramatic content. The elegantly stark décor features scenic designer Mimi Lien's neon-banded concrete wall, which moves laterally forward and backward, a visual simile for the world that suffocates its characters' dreams, with Justin Townsend's side-dominated lighting, Toni Leslie James' savvy costumes and Andre Pluess' atmospheric sound all assets.

And the cast is marvelous, repeatedly avoiding clichés, with Lewis and Pinkins devastating at their climactic face-off. The play isn't quite perfect yet -- both Keera and Antwoine could stand more Act 1 development to heighten their Act 2 outcomes; some similes are more on-the-nose than necessary. These are decorative quibbles, because "Milk Like Sugar" truthfully balances street with sweet, to entertaining, illuminating and nourishing effect, and that makes it a must-see.

-- David C. Nichols, from La Jolla

"Milk Like Sugar," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 25. $41 to $74. (858) 550-1010 or LaJollaPlayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Angela Lewis, left, Nikiya Mathis and Cherise Boothe. Credit: Craig Schwartz.

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