By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Nov 17, 2004 at 5:08 AM

{image1} African-American reporters at a major newspaper toil away in the margins of print while those who reach for higher recognition engage in questionable activities. Race relations get worse as they get better and somehow people still die. People still lose the ones they love and hope for retribution or at least a quiet moment. The Rep's production of Tracey Scott Wilson's "The Story," covers all this and quite a bit more in a glossy production on one of the largest stages for theater in the city.

After an opening murder, Yvonne (Ann Joseph) and Jeff (Kevin McKillip) walk into their offices at the paper. Jeff has worked there for quite some time, and it's Yvonne's first day. She's been assigned to focus on the black culture of the city for the "Outlook" section. She feels as though the color of her skin may be limiting her career options at the paper, and Jeff is concerned that people around the office will find out about their inter-racial relationship.

The tension between the two is subtle and slow to develop. Joseph and McKillip seem like decent actors lost in the ambiguity of the script -- making their chemistry come off as being somewhat undefined throughout the production.

Yvonne finds herself working alongside a reporter she can't stand (Patrick Sims) and under an editor she disagrees with (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). While tolerating the advances of her fellow reporter and slogging through the low-level public-interest pieces her editor gives her, she runs into an important story fit for a major section of the newspaper.

Apparently, a girl she was interviewing at a neighborhood center confessed to being implicated in the opening murder. Hard to believe coming from a troubled, multi-lingual inner-city high school student who is part of an all-girl gang. Perhaps the most startling performance of the production comes from the young actress (Lanise Antoine Shelley) who can make such a role believable. Shelley performed many of the subtle nuances of her character with talent well beyond her experience.

At the intermission the full effect of the show's visual and sonic aesthetics sink-in. The set design -- by Todd Rosenthal -- is a shadowy hybrid somewhere between a TV newsroom, a dance club and a federal prison. It plays an interesting accessory to police arrests, interviews and confrontations. The score and accompanying sound design are expertly rendered by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli. The music is stunningly contemporary -- conjuring the perfect up-to-the-minute TV news feel for the production. Unfortunately, the complete aesthetics come off a little like the audio-visual aesthetic of Fox News -- highly dramatic music wrapping too small a political canvas.

After intermission, the plot is more convoluted. All the intermingling themes, juggled in such a reasonably satisfying way throughout the first half, collide. And while it's interesting to see the ambitious Yvonne's complexities show darkness amid ever-increasing conflict, the plot disintegrates into a murky chaos by the end.

And while it's very refreshing to see a big-budget play that doesn't have an easy-to-read finish, it's disappointing to see it run out of steam long before getting there. It was the right idea to cover important issues of race relations, mass media and truth -- especially in a city as racially segregated as Milwaukee -- but it's unfortunate that it ends in such disappointing, intellectually spice-less gumbo of a topical plotline.

What "The Story" is saying is important, but important drama isn't automatically good. Quality drama doesn't rest in the surface of its milieu -- it must be earned through a substance beyond its subject matter. Without a cohesive plot that has insight into its perspective, "The Story" is a good dialogue that fails to be great drama.

The Milwaukee Rep's "The Story," plays through Nov. 21 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. Tickets range in price from $8.50 to $48.50 and can be purchased in advance by calling (414) 224-9490.