“GEM OF THE OCEAN” A POWERHOUSE DRAMA BY AUGUST WILSON


BONNIE GOLDBERG

Claiming to be 285 years old, Aunt Ester is a font of philosophical wisdom, a woman who has not left her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in two decades and a spiritual beacon known for her ability to wash clean men’s troubled souls.

When Citizen Barlow knocks on her door one dark night in 1904, he is seeking absolution. From Aunt Ester, he learns many life lessons: “To stand in the light...Life is a mystery…You need to trust the adventure.”

Playwright August Wilson penned an amazing ten play cycle about his beloved home, Pittsburgh, and about his people, African-Americans and their struggles to better themselves.  Each play captures a decade of the twentieth century and the Hartford Stage’s “Gem of the Ocean” is the first play of the saga playing until Sunday, June 5.

Novella Nelson’s Aunt Ester is the omnipotent matriarch of the tale, a woman who believes in the power of the spiritual world and its ability to explain the past and impact the present and future.  She considers her home a sanctuary, a place of peace, and she is especially protective of those who live under her sheltering wings:

Eli (Ernest Perry Jr,), Black Mary (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) and Solly Two Kings (Roger Robinson).  Into her realm come Citizen Barlow (Stephen Tyrone Williams) seeking redemption and atonement, who takes an amazing journey in a paper boat named “Gem of the Ocean,” Rutherford Selig (Christopher McHale) selling his wares of pots and pans, who risks his life for his friends and Caesar (Ray Anthony Thomas), the appointed purveyor of justice, whose own eyes are blinded by the letter of the law.

When a mill worker is accused by stealing a bucket of nails, he protests his innocence by jumping in the river.  His drowning sets off a series of troubling episodes that involve the residents of 1839 Wylie Avenue and lead Aunt Ester to perform a cleansing of Citizen Barlow’s disturbed soul.  This powerhouse of a drama, that spans three engrossing hours, by a truly gifted troupe of actors, is skillfully directed by Hana S Sharif, on a inspired set by Scott Bradley, with period costuming by Ilona Somogyi, taut lighting by Lap Chi Chu and striking sound by Broken Chord.

For tickets ($29-69), call the Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford at 860-527-5151 or online at www.hartfordstage.org.  Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Sunday at 2 p.m. and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m.

Accompany Citizen Barlow on his intense spiritual journey to the mythic City of Bones, courtesy of his personal tour guide and redeemer to freedom, Aunt Ester. It is a theatrical adventure you will long treasure.


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