Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pittsburgh Poetry

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Starring Marsha Stephanie Blake, Chad L. Coleman, Michael Cummings, Aunjanue Ellis, Danai Gurira, Andre Holland, Arliss Howard, Ernie Hudson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Amari Rose Leigh, Roger Robinson

Performances through June 14, 2009
Belasco Theater
111 West 44th Street

Robinson and Blake in
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
In toto, August Wilson’s ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” of African-American life in the 20th century constitutes one of our greatest theatrical achievements. Of course, the plays themselves vary widely in quality; alongside masterworks Fences, The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars are lesser lights Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean. In between are King Hedley II and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, an overlong but expressive drama that relies on top-notch casting and a sympathetic director to succeed. Luckily, it gets both of those in Lincoln Center theater’s terrific new production.

Wilson’s play is set in Pittsburgh in 1911--each of the cycle’s plays is set in a different decade--in the boardinghouse of Seth and his wife, Bertha. Their current tenants are Jeremy, a young, energetic worker with an eye for the ladies and Bynum, a mystical old man. Selig, a white traveling salesman, often drops by, while Mattie, a young woman whose husband left her, comes to ask for Bynum’s help in getting him back. Meanwhile, Molly, a sultry bad girl, takes a room for a few days, and succeeds in prying Jeremy away from Mattie soon after they get together.

Into the household comes another nomad, Herald Loomis, and his young daughter, Zonia. Obsessed with his lost wife, for whom he’s been searching for several years, Herald also harbors a darker secret about his past. While his daughter becomes friends with Reuben, the boy next door, Herald spooks the assembled adults with his single-mindedness; Seth tells Bertha that he’s sure that Herald’s missing wife is a local woman, Martha, and Herald hallucinates about his awful loss of freedom, which coincided with his wife’s disappearance, and Bynum, the trusty shaman, is there to help him through this episode, which is an obvious allusion to the institution of slavery, which had only ended a mere half-century earlier.

Wilson has always created an elderly sage in his plays, which has the potential to disrupt the realism of his characters with the metaphysical. He often pulls off this tricky balancing act, but here, however, the cohabitation is more creaky than usual because Herald has been underwritten: he’s too overtly symbolic of the black people’s plight at this time, which makes him more of a caricature than is usual in Wilson‘s work. The Act I finale, when his hallucinations haunt everybody in the boardinghouse, is admittedly imposing theater, but not as convincing dramatically.

That said, Wilson’s poetic dialogue perfectly catches the flavor and sense of this time, this place and these searching people. And, in the hands of director Bartlett Sher, Joe Turner gets a production for the ages--far better than its original Broadway staging 20 years ago. Michael Yeargan’s set includes mobile windows and doors that rise and fall as needed, ground this story’s characters in a naturalistic setting. Even the small garden at stage front nicely conveys the optimism needed for these characters to find what‘s missing in their lives.

Brian MacDevitt’s masterly lighting and Catherine Zuber’s spot-on costumes contribute as much to the drama’s power as Sher‘s understated ability to move his actors around the stage meaningfully. And the actors, with one notable exception, are tremendous. Latanya Richardson Jackson (Bertha), Arliss Howard (Selig), Andre Holland (Jeremy), Amari Rose Leigh (Zonia), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Mattie) and Aujanue Ellis (Molly) could not be bettered, and Ernie Hudson (Seth) and Roger Robinson (Bynum) are better even than they--Robinson especially has an indelible presence as he provides the play‘s human center. Only Chad L. Coleman has a tough time of it, having trouble burrowing into Wilson’s symbolic Herald: he enters the scene bellowing and doesn’t modulate his performance after that.

Even with this rare misstep, this is a Joe Turner whose time has come.

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