If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
HARTFORD STAGE CLOSES WITH A “GEM”
A few precious performances remain at the Hartford Stage whose season is currently ending on a definite high note. The offering is “Gem of the Ocean”, the first in the late, great playwright August Wilson’s magnificent 10-play saga about African-American life in the United States, and it’s worth catching.
It may have been a less-than-golden theatre season overall in Connecticut, but audiences were fortunate to see two excellent revivals of August Wilson’s work this year. The first was Yale Repertory’s solid production of “The Piano Lesson” last winter and now we have director Hana S. Sharif’s loving rendering of “Gem of the Ocean”. Far from the best of the Wilson cycle, the drama is still miles ahead in quality of just about any other play you’ll find presently running.
Set in 1904, “Gem of the Ocean” introduces one of Wilson’s most memorable characters: the former slave, Aunt Esther. Rumored to be nearing the age of 285 and apparently blessed with magic, Esther is the talk of her Pittsburgh neighborhood. The locals are convinced Esther has the power for cleansing souls and that brings Citizen Barlow to her door. Citizen is of the new generation of African-American; a free man but currently heavy-hearted with the guilt of a recent crime hanging over him. He desperately believes he needs Aunt Esther’s help to make his metaphoric journey to freedom, a journey of mind and spirit. It’s quite a trip.
Mr. Wilson is truly “old school” when it comes to playwrighting and how rare it is to experience drama with real characters you get to know fully and a plot marked by a distinct beginning, middle and end. Even when Wilson takes us down strange roads that border on magical realism, his storytelling gifts rarely falter. Like most of his plays, “Gem” is probably overwritten and ends one too many times (the running time at Hartford clocks in at just under three hours). But what writing! The monologues for actors here play like arias and the Hartford troupe is clearly up to the task.
Novella Nelson is a commanding Aunt Esther who dominates the proceedings even while offstage. She balances the mystical and practical aspects of her complicated character with admirable brio. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ soulful Citizen Barlow and Joniece Abbott-Pratt, as Esther’s put-upon housekeeper, are also memorable. Ernest Perry Jr., Christopher McHale, Roger Robinson and Ray Anthony Thomas complete the superb company.
Scott Bradley’s gorgeously detailed, two-story set is smartly designed to include old world influences and windows that reveal a life of their own late in the play. Ilona Somogyi’s expressive costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s precise lighting and the mournful horns and piano in Broken Chord’s sound design are woven effortlessly into the fabric of this sprawling, engrossing drama. August Wilson would approve.
“Gem of the Ocean” continues at Hartford Stage through June 5. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.