THE STY OF THE BLIND PIG a powerful family drama at TheaterWorks
One of the delights of being a longtime theatergoer is when you come across a hidden gem of a play. When it comes to African American playwrights, the majority of stage time has been reserved for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or any one of August Wilson’s fine dramas. This is unfortunate as there are undoubtedly overlooked works that chronicle the African American experience not getting explored. So kudos to Hartford’s scrappy TheaterWorks and Tazewell Thompson for unearthing Philip Hayes Dean’s The Sty of the Blind Pig, running now through February 26.
Originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company Off-Broadway in 1971, The Sty of the Blind Pig has been revived infrequently, despite garnering its playwright a Drama Desk for “Most Promising Playwright.” The TheaterWorks production, staged with care and insight by Tazewell Thompson, is most likely as good a production as you will find with a terrific cast.
Blind Pig falls into the category of the oft-humorous family drama where an adult child is essentially being held hostage in a claustrophobic home by an overbearing parent. The Glass Menagerie, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, August: Osage County and The Beauty Queen of Lenaane all lie within this continuum. The play is set in a soon-to-be condemned Chicago tenement on a crime-riddled street. Weedy, a crotchety and self-righteous church lady, shares an apartment with her pained daughter Alberta. Knowing that her child is hiding something unnerves the mother, setting sparks flying between the two. Their mutual desire to bury secrets has both women passive-aggressively tormenting each other.
Enter a blind, handsome guitarist who stumbles upon the apartment looking for a mysterious lady from his past. As the man is named Jordan and is looking for a woman named Grace Waters wandering into the apartment of a woman mourning the loss of a love named Emmanuel, the religious allegory and symbolism start to pile onto the plot. Is he Alberta’s path to salvation or damnation? Does Grace Waters exist? Why does Weedy distrust him on sight? Does Jordan represent the dying religious ways of an older generation or does he herald the arrival of the nascent Civil Rights movement, then gathering steam? All of these questions come tumbling forth and, at moments, the taut family drama at the heart of the play gets muddled. Questions raised are often not answered, which can be frustrating, but give food for thought and conversation after the play or during the show’s two intermissions.
Brenda Thomas gives a master class in acting as the tough, often-hypocritical Weedy. She makes nary a false move on stage and she rapidly becomes the mother you are grateful is not your own. Playing her boozing and gambling brother Doc, Jonathan Earl Peck is a lanky charmer that quickly discovers there is no easy way out of this moral quagmire.
Tentative at first, Krystel Lucas’ performance as Alberta seems a bit mannered, but slowly develops in complexity and fire. Her Act 2 spasm of religious ecstasies provides a tour-de-force opportunity for the young actress and she delivers. Rounding out the cast is Eden Marryshow playing Blind Jordan. Marryshow does a fine job conveying the mysterious nature of this friendly stranger. The Act 3 revelation of dark secrets from his past seem a bit out of nowhere and do not jibe with the gentle character we have seen thus far. Perhaps darkly shading the character a bit more in the early going would have made these revelations seem less incongruous.
The play ends on a slightly unsatisfying note, but this is not due to the sturdy work of Tazewell Thompson or his design team. TheaterWorks has once again delivered a well-executed production filled with genuine emotion and stellar acting. Raising questions about inter-generational conflict and the Civil Rights Era, The Sty of the Blind Pig is a worthy outing as we head into Black History Month. Church groups in particular will likely find much to discuss as biblical allusions collide with this conflicted bunch of sinners. Take a risk on The Sty of the Blind Pig.