By Jason Clark
August 26, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Matthew Murphy

Make no mistake, Naomi Wallace’s sobering female-liberation drama And I And Silence will hit you like a ton of bricks. Maybe not right away, or even the day after, but the play will deliver a gut-level impact the more you reflect on it. While the story is a fictional one, written long before any of 2014’s racially charged news events transpired, Silence is firmly rooted in current events and creates a remarkably tense yet edifying structure around literal and metaphorical imprisonment.

The setting is a Southern jail in the 1950s, where an emotionally hardened African American girl named Jamie (Trae Harris) meets the more rural, eager white girl Dee (Emily Skeggs). Like a pair of school kids, the two teens sniff each other out and probe each other for vulnerabilities. In one colorful exchange, young Jamie tells Dee that a ”girl who can’t tell oak from maple’s no use to me.” They soon become fast friends, however, with dreams of becoming parlor maids. Jamie teaches Dee the ropes of becoming a choice domestic worker (most urgent: never forget your bucket and brush, even when your boss makes advances that might cause you to flee). Their lessons and role-playing become more aggressive, with shades of Jean Genet’s The Maids intruding.

Years later, the two reunite as supposedly freed adults (with Rachel Nicks as Jamie and Samantha Soule as Dee). But freedom has a price, especially in a society where race can impact one’s life and livelihood. We learn, for instance, that Jamie’s brother was killed when a block of wood in his pocket was mistaken for a gun. (The unintentional echo of current events strikes again.)

Despite the heavy material, Silence never feels like a dirge, mainly because of director Caitlin McLeod’s focused, simple production and a charismatic, committed quartet. Harris and Skeggs are especially endearing as the younger Jamie and Dee. And Rachel Hauck’s marvelous split-stage, two-level use of Signature Theatre Company’s Linney house is like another character.

Wallace’s potent writing style suggests Tennessee Williams with a decidedly feminine lilt (a literal one, this time). Occasionally, she can be too on the nose with her Freudian subtext (witness adult Dee’s jarring revelation about a sex dream involving her mother). But she never loses the goodwill or sympathy of the audience. In the end, Wallace’s triumphant drama emerges as a distaff version of Of Mice and Men, with scrub brushes substituting for bales of hay. A-