After an impressive debut with “The Glass Menagerie” in November 2015, Durham’s Bartlett Theater returns with its second production, Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” part of the company’s on-going “season” of works by Tennessee Williams and those whom he influenced.
It’s easy to see the similarities to “Menagerie” in Nottage’s 1995 play. Ernestine Crump looks back at her life as a teenager in early 1950s Brooklyn, switching between adult narrator and high school senior in remembered scenes.
Her father, Godfrey, had moved from Florida with Ernestine and her younger sister, Ermina, after his wife died. Despite hopes for a better life, they must scrape by on Godfrey’s meager earnings at a bakery while confronting Brooklyn’s own brand of discrimination.
Godfrey adds to the family’s woes by becoming a follower of a charlatan evangelist. Tensions mount when Godfrey’s raucous, Communist-leaning sister-in-law, Lily, shows up and asks to stay. When Godfrey meets German immigrant Grete by chance on the subway, their relationship stirs strong passions and prejudices.
Nottage, now a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, reveals a still-developing talent in “Crumbs.” She creates lovably flawed characters with humor and cleverly lets some segments play out as Ernestine would have wished rather than as they occurred. But Nottage also packs too many social and political issues into a single play and has Ernestine interrupt the action with commentary too often, diluting each scene’s impact.
However, director Karen Dacons-Brock gets likeable performances from her cast, smoothing over the rough spots. Amanda Warriner’s simple set of wooden door frames, benches and platforms puts the action in a dreamlike world, aided by Stevan Dupor’s lighting design of glowing shadows and sound design of radio jazz and subway screeches.
Lakeisha Coffey clearly distinguishes between the worldly adult Ernestine and the dutiful but questioning teenager. Jade Arnold sensitively displays Godfrey’s conflict between responsibility for family and desire for personal happiness. As Ermina, Moriah Williams makes a fine transition from bouncy youngster to maturing young woman. Emily Rieder’s sympathetic Grete has an accent sometimes too heavy for clarity and Melanie Matthews’ sensuous Lily sometimes paces her lines too languidly.
Quibbles aside, the production can be recommended for its warm characterizations and universal insights into family relations.
What: “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” presented by Bartlett Theater
Where: Durham Arts Council PSI Theater, 120 Morris St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Mar. 10-11; 3 p.m. Mar. 12
Tickets: $25 (seniors $20; students/military $15)
Info: 919-808-2203 or bartletttheater.org