"Fascinatin' " is how Caroline (Kelly Taffe) describes Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence) in Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence, a tale about African Americans who jockeyed race horses before the Civil War and the current mainstage production at the Cincinnati Playhouse. And Simon is fascinating, at least on the surface: cocky, aggressive, bold and assured, the picture of "pure confidence," which is also the name of the thoroughbred horse he rides so successfully.
But Caroline, who captures his heart and whom he decides to acquire for his wife, is just as "fascinatin' " and a whole lot more human. A woman born into slavery and leading a pleasant but subservient existence to a wealthy woman, Miss Mattie Johnson (Maureen Silliman), Caroline has a mind of her own and thoughts that run deeper than Simon's. He is obsessed with using his success to purchase his own freedom. Col. Wiley "The Fox" Johnson (William Parry), a horse owner who hires Simon, has befriended Simon in a relationship that is financially beneficial for both of them. But Simon wants more and backs Johnson into a corner. Their confrontations are laced with humor that resonates today, even if it's unlikely banter for the 1860s.
Caroline, however, is the more human character. Taffe makes her a woman you'd like to know — shy but (eventually) ready to speak her mind.
In the play's more subtly textured second act, she is no longer Miss Mattie's beloved servant: She has become her emotional and personal equal. She's been a devoted wife to Simon through personal suffering and the dramatic evolution of one-time slaves freed in the wake of the Civil War but suffering economically. But even more, Caroline now knows herself and what's important. Taffe's portrait is fully dimensioned.
Lawrence's Cato is more caricatured and overtly captivating. He's sassy and smart, driven in the ways that make for a juicy acting performance. In one fine scene he describes an imagined horse race between "Freedom" and "Slavery" — he's "riding" a barrel with a saddle on it, but we can see it as if there were real horses. (It's enhanced by Taffe's observations as she reacts to his spirited monologue.) But Simon's "pure confidence" is a given: We never plumb the depths of his soul as to why he is so compelled to achieve freedom.
We do measure the depth of his personality in the second act, 15 years after his success. He has become a bellhop at Saratoga, near the famous racetrack where a tragic accident ended his career as the Civil War began. He appears to be a beaten man, accepting his sad existence — until the Johnsons appear with a generous and well-meaning offer that is nonetheless patronizing. His former boldness flickers, but he's been tempered by maturity and by his wife's positive influences.
Parry gives the colonel a pragmatic, bemused presence in the first act; he knows "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em," whether dealing with Simon's scheming or his wife's strong assertions. Silliman's Mattie is equally intriguing, a fine portrait of a strong Southern woman who knows her mind but is simultaneously open-minded and opportunistic. John G. Preston plays a loud-mouthed competitor in the first act and an amusing, smarmy hotel clerk in the second. Ron Riley's roles — as an auctioneer in the first half and a reporter in the second — largely fill in the narrative details.
The set for this show (designed by Emily Beck) is workmanlike and functional, not up to the Playhouse's usual high standards. That's not a detriment in a show largely about characters, and they're costumed colorfully and true to the periods (Austin K. Sanderson). Music during scenic transitions is evocative of the periods from slave songs to Ragtime. Grade: B
PURE CONFIDENCE, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Feb.