Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quick Hit Review: Gem of the Ocean -- Hartford Stage

Stephen Tyrone Williams and Novella Nelson.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Gem of the Ocean
Hartford Stage
By August Wilson
Directed by Hana S, Sharif

Summary:
The first, chronologically, in August Wilson's 10-play series about the African-American experience in Pittsburgh, decade-by-decade through the 20th century. Here, in 1904, we meet Aunt Esther (Noelle Nelson), who claims to be hundreds of years old, who was born in slavery, and who is a "soul cleaner." She takes Citizen Barlow (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on a mystical voyage aboard the slave ship Gem of the Ocean, where he meets hs ancestors and comes to gips with a crime he has committed. Meanwhile, Caesar (Ray Anthony Thomas), a Jauvert-type officer of the law, pursues Solly Two Kings (Roger Robinson), aided by Esther, a white peddler, Rutherford Selig (Christopher McHale) and Black Mary (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Caesar's sister who has fallen for Citizen, and Eli (Ernest Perry, Jr) who loves Esther.

Highlights:
As with all of the plays in this series, Wilson gives us a slice of life, so that we feel as though a special window has been opened so we can observe the events and emotions experienced by members of this family through the years. Nelson gives a wonderful performance, mixing wisdom of the ages with humor and insight. Sharif coaxes strong performances from all, actually. Lighting, by designer Lap Chi Chu is exceptional as images of ancestors past are revealed on Scott Bradley's set and Citizen's voyage on the Gem comes to life.

Lowlights:
It feels a little on the long side at almost three hours with a few too many long soliloquies. The physical staging of a special effect to create the ship doesn't quite work.

Information:
Gem of the Ocean runs through June 5 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. For tickets, call 860-527-5151.
--Lauren Yarger

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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