What Use is Freedom When You Don’t Know What to do With It?
By Roz Friedman
August Wilson is having a good year. His Piano Lesson played to high praise at the Yale Rep in February and now Gem of the Ocean, directed with a fine hand by Associate Artistic Director Hanna Sharif, is being given a fine, pulsing production at Hartford Stage. Originally produced on Broadway in 2004, this work, which takes place in Pittsburgh in 1904, weaves the realistically cruel strands of slavery and poverty with the mystical healing powers of Aunt Ester. Ester, played here commandingly by Novella Nelson, professes to be 285 years old. (We, ourselves, do feel that way at times.) Her home, handsomely designed by Scott Bradley and lit by Lap Chi Chu, is a haven for disparate and desperate characters.
Eli, the steady Ernest Perry, Jr., is a sort of narrator and answers the door shouting: This is a peaceful house. Tony winner, Roger Robinson gives a wonderfully textured performance as Solly Two Kings; re-named himself after Solomon and David, he had been a union scout and marches with a cane with two heads. When he receives a letter form his sister, telling him how terrible things are in Alabama; black people are being beaten and killed and she doesn’t know how she will make it, he decides that he will walk there to save her. He is not young and it is obvious that the trip is too much for him, but he is determined to do it. He is also loves Ester.
For the past three years, Black Mary, a young woman, played by the pretty Joniece Abbot-Platt, has been doing the cooking and cleaning. Ester hopes that she will inherit her talents. Portrayed heavily by Ray Anthony Thomas, Mary’s brother, Caesar, is the intransigent police chief, who, taking the job too literally shot a man to death for stealing a loaf of bread. Christopher McHale is Rutherford Selig, a white, itinerant peddler, who finds comfort and food in his visits.
The centerpiece of the town is a mill, which employs many people. There, a man was accused of stealing a bucket of nails. Denying it, he has thrown himself into the river and drowned. Into this atmosphere comes Citizen Barlow, a part Stephen Tyrone Williams plays well-- with inconsolable hopelessness. He is filled with guilt and wants to wash his soul. Barlow reminds Ester of one of her sons, the a rascal but beloved June-Bug, who was hung. It is suggested by the rope she wears around her waist. In a dramatic episode, Barlow is cast by Ester, into the City of Bones, where he sees his forbears, those who have come before him, those who suffered. In the meantime, Solly, determined to leave, is caught by Caesar for burning down the mill. While his end is tragic, Citizen Barlow, takes on Solly’s mantle: his distinctive patchwork coat, his walking stick, and his daughter’s address and sets out for the journey.
The costumes that Ilona Somogyi, who won out CCC award before, has created for this production are especially earthy & appropriate. Gem of the Ocean- will play thru June 4.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO