Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson, Directed by Phylicia Rashad, Seattle Repertory Theatre, through 6 May. 2007.
I've pretty much said what I need to say about August Wilson's works here. Gem of the Ocean, set in 1908 at the start of Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle (though written in 2003) pretty much recapitulates the strengths and weaknesses of his other work. It is all here, laid out like a Sunday Dinner: there is the choice between doing good versus doing right, man's law versus the best interests of the community, hopes offered and then dashed, long speeches of fluid language, and the sudden eruption of violence. And there is something more here in Gem that is less apparent in the other plays - a stronger presence of magaic.
Here's the short-form on the plot: Aunt Ester is a "washer of souls", revered by the black community as a wise woman, mystic, and holy woman (her house at 1839 Wylie Avenue becomes the bone of contention seventy years later in Radio Golf). Citizen Barlow (Kahli Kain), newly arrived from the south, needs to be forgiven for his sins. Ester and her extended family provides him the path to forgiveness, but when things look like a happy ending, sudden violence intrudes and the final resolution is much darker but no less hoperful.
As I said before, Wilson could use an editor, preferably a heartless one with a steely eye that could cut away all the excessive but beautiful words. Michele Shay as Aunt Ester burbles like water through his prose, a continual flow of one-sided conversation that surrounds the viewer and threatens to overwhelm. The entire cast was strong, working with strong material, but there was so much of it, and so much of it was declamation, not conversation.
And then early in the second act, when Barlow goes through the ceremony for to have his soul washed, visiting the ancestors in the City of Bones, the play gathers itself up and enters another dimension, a magical one, Terra Incognito compared to Wilson's other work, yet underlying it all. And while the play grounds itself later in now-familiar territory, it is this section that brings it to life, and sets it apart from its brethren.
The house was packed for the performance, with a lot of newcomers to the theater (judging from the number who failed to turn off their cell phones). I wonder if the high attendance is in part is due to the attention from August Wilson's passing last year, and the idea that now that his work is self-contained and completed, it becomes more accessible (and that the author is not around to contend with your conclusions). Does a man become less confrontational once he is entombed? Or does his voice grow after his passing and his entrance into the City of Bones, strengthened by allies who came before?
A final note on the Rep's season. which closes with this play. Last year I thought was a transitional season between artistic directors, but this year must be laid at the feet of David Esbjornson. This was a superior year of theater for the Rep, with the exception of the bone-rattling self-indulgent Thom Pain. There were performances that left me cold (Blue Door) and those that engaged me deeply (Fire on the Mountain, My Name is Rachel Corrie), and some that were just OK, but in general it was probably the best season of the last few years, and I look forward to what's coming up.
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