Theater review: A worthwhile, though flawed, 'Gem'

CorrespondentMay 13, 2014 

Sherida McMullan, left, and Jade Arnold in “Gem of the Ocean.”

ADAM GRAETZ

  • Details

    What: “Gem of the Ocean,” by August Wilson

    Where: ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro

    When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

    Tickets: $14-$16

    Info: 919-929-2787 or artscenterlive.org

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson is rightly esteemed for his 10-play cycle exploring 20th-century African-American experiences. “Gem of the Ocean,” the first chronologically, has all the familiar Wilson elements, from engaging to irksome. The Carrboro’s ArtsCenter Stage production offers much to admire but doesn’t address all the script’s weaknesses.

The play, set in 1904 Pittsburgh, focuses on Aunt Ester, a revered former slave who takes in troubled souls, aided by her young housekeeper, Black Mary, and aging caregiver, Eli. Enter Citizen Barlow, a young man from Alabama working in a local steel mill. He seeks absolution from allowing another man to die for his theft from the mill. Solly Two Kings, another former slave, helps protect Citizen from the suspicious policeman, Caesar Wilks.

Wilson’s ear for the vernacular makes the characters a joy to hear, their dialogue humorous and grippingly personal. The play’s highlight is the second act “journey” Citizen takes as Aunt Ester conjures a harrowing voyage on the slave ship in the title, connecting Citizen to his ancestors’ history to help him accept his troubles. But at nearly three hours, including intermission, the play’s impact is constantly diminished by rambling dialog, drawn out side stories and overlong monologues.

Director John Harris has an experienced cast that takes on the characters with gusto. But at the production’s third performance Sunday, pacing was leaden, there were a number of line flubs and the actors often seemed under-rehearsed.

Nevertheless, Jade Arnold molded Citizen into a touching figure, his stepping back in time frighteningly intense. Thomasi McDonald filled Solly with sly but unflinching resistance to injustice, Phillip Bernard Smith gave Caesar boisterous evil and John Murphy made traveling salesman Rutherford Selig warmly sympathetic. Malcolm Green, although too young, found quiet kindness in Eli.

Sherida McMullan filled the stage with beaming charm as Black Mary, by turns coy, defiant or vulnerable, although more as separate characters than facets of just one. Juanda LaJoyce Holley had great presence as Aunt Ester, deftly embodying the wise elder and feisty crusader, but the characterization did not stay consistent.

An announced last-minute lighting problem may have affected some of Sunday’s performance. Even so, the script and production have enough merit to give satisfaction to those willing to forgive their foibles.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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