If there’s one constant in all 10 plays of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, it’s Wilson’s respect for the transcendent dignity of his characters, no matter what their circumstances. So Troy Maxson in Fences (recently made into a fine movie) may be a rubbish collector, an adulterer and an unreasonable obstacle to his son’s athletic future, but still he radiates a kind of greatness, as if suffering has made him an aristocrat of the spirit. And the same is true for just about every Wilson character: If the actors give themselves over to the poetry of this playwright’s dialogue, they take on an oversize significance, a soul-force, a grandeur. One walks away from a successful Wilson production feeling an admiration for his characters bordering on awe: If the author’s to be trusted, giants walk the earth.
But this doesn’t work if the actors play at being giants. And that’s what’s wrong with the central performance in Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come & Gone, currently appearing in an otherwise satisfying production at American Stage. When Herald Loomis first walks into Seth and Bertha Holly’s boardinghouse, the mysterious realism of Wilson’s dramaturgy goes right out the window and instead we’re faced with a graphic novel figure, not a man who’s been through hell but A Man Who Has Been Through Hell. Dressed almost all in black — coat, vest, hat, shoes — by costumer Frank Chavez, Calvin M. Thompson plays Loomis as a lurking symbol, a Jungian archetype, so much more intense than any other figure on stage, he doesn’t seem to belong in the same universe. Since this hyper-Loomis lacks humanity, we have trouble believing in his relationship with his daughter Zonia (the excellent Shelby Ronea) and his search for his missing wife. And since the play’s ending is all about the results of that search, we have difficulty feeling the catharsis Wilson intends. In fact, in this version, that conclusion feels stagy and unconvincing.
Which isn’t true of the rest of the production. In the first minutes of Joe Turner, we’re introduced to Seth Holly (the unceasingly inspired Kim Sullivan) and his wife Bertha (the fully delightful Fanni Green) and the men and women who live in their boardinghouse. There’s the conjuror Bynum (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), the young ladies’ man Jeremy (a too-goofy Satchel André), and, after a while, the much-neglected Mattie Campbell (wonderful Cindy de la Cruz) and femme fatale Molly Cunningham (beautiful Jemier Jenkins). The year is 1911, and the United States is about to see the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the north. A frequent visitor to the boardinghouse, particularly useful during this era, is Rutherford Selig (a somewhat blurry Richard B. Watson), a “people-finder” who for a dollar searches for missing relatives and loved ones. Soon after Herald Loomis arrives, he hires Selig to find the wife he’s been separated from since he was dragooned into a work gang by the eponymous Joe Turner. Loomis, we learn, had to labor for seven terrible years before Turner released him, and the experience has rendered him not quite sane. Now he moves from town to town with his cherubic daughter, looking for the missing Martha and falling, at times, into mystical fits. Like other characters in Wilson’s plays, the history of slavery has become embedded in his deep psyche, a fact understood by Bynum but not by the more conventional Seth.
If the scenes with Loomis are too exaggerated to be effective, there’s still much to enjoy in L. Peter Callender’s staging. Sullivan and Green can do no wrong in depicting a long, happy marriage that thrives on mutual esteem, and de la Cruz as the often-deserted Mattie is so sympathetic, you want to comfort her and get her a therapist. Jenkins as Molly is entertaining: this is a cynical woman who depends on male attention while refusing to find men authoritative; and Ronea as Zonia may be the sweetest little girl in town, but she’s already experimenting with kisses from her admirer Ruben (Tyrese Pope). The strikingly attractive set is by Scott Cooper, and the expressive lighting is by Joseph P. Oshry.
With Joe Turner, American Stage’s presentation of Wilson’s Century Cycle is finally complete. If this last production isn’t the best of them, still it reminds us that no other modern playwright, not even the great humanist Chekhov, communicates so well the mysterious radiance of “ordinary” humanity. If you’ve attended the earlier plays, you won’t want to miss this one, flaws or not. And if you haven’t? Well, be prepared. Wilson sees something in the human soul that other playwrights have failed to locate. He just may change your view forever.
Joe Turner’s Come & Gone
3 of 5 stars
American Stage, 163 3rd St. N., St. Pete
Through Feb. 26: Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; and Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.