Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Gem of the Ocean"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by August Wilson
directed by Kenny Leon

Eli … Eugene Lee
Citizen Barlow …John Earl Jelks
Aunt Ester … Phylicia Rashad
Black Mary … LisaGay Hamilton
Rutherford Selig … Raynor Scheine
Solly Two Kings … Anthony Chisholm
Caesar … Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Aunt Ester, an ancient ex-slave with magical powers, is an off-stage presence in August Wilson’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING; fourteen years later, she is onstage at the Huntington as the centerpiece of Mr. Wilson’s GEM OF THE OCEAN, the latest installment in his decade-by-decade charting of the Black Experience in America (in the former play, set in 1969, Aunt Ester is well into her third century; in the latter, set in 1904, she is a mere 285). Both plays have her residing at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh --- in TWO TRAINS RUNNING, hers is the red door “in the back”; in GEM, her dwelling is now part mansion, part Gothic castle. Though newly minted (its title comes from a magical paper boat, folded from a document dear to the old woman’s heart), GEM OF THE OCEAN begins Mr. Wilson’s ten-play cycle; as often happens when writing out of sequence, GEM OF THE OCEAN seems light-years away from the earlier, earthier works set in later times as Mr. Wilson has naturally grown and mellowed, writer-wise, these past twenty years. GEM OF THE OCEAN is cut from the same cloth --- the ensemble casts, the Chekhovian inertia, the verbal one-upmanships, the lengthy monologues that double as the oral history of a race, the sudden violence, the poetic symbolism are all in place alongside the miniscule plot (Aunt Ester uses her magic to help Citizen Barlow, a troubled young man, confess that he unintentionally caused a friend’s death, down South) but rather than being the bold, colorful prologue that will usher in Mr. Wilson’s cycle when completed, GEM OF THE OCEAN is autumnal, even snowy, in mood as if Mr. Wilson has already broken his staff in farewell rather than brandish it in greeting (his last play in the cycle, set in the 1990s, is currently in development). Clocking in at three hours’ playing time, GEM OF THE OCEAN is soothing but dull, its anger issuing from an armchair rather than from the street --- it may be sailing for Broadway after completing its Boston run but GEM OF THE OCEAN’s true harbor may lie in repertory preceding some or all of the other plays in the cycle just as Wagner’s DAS RHEINGOLD seems pointless without DIE WALKURE hoyotohoing behind it.

The Huntington has often midwifed to Mr. Wilson in the past and, not surprisingly, it has mounted GEM OF THE OCEAN as the now-expected Event that anything he writes automatically becomes. The Old Girl would have been wise to have set this GEM in its new theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts rather than on the vast Boston University Stage; as a result, Kenny Leon’s cast, composed of Wilson veterans, has an uphill battle trying to fill all the corners of David Gallo's towering dark-and-rainy-night setting. Aside from Anthony Chisholm as the rascally Solly Two Kings, seller of dog-shit, the ensemble fails to convince that these characters are one generation removed from slavery’s yoke, i.e. they do not read “colored” (when John Earl Jelks removes his shirt, his Citizen Barlow becomes a buffed underwear ad); Constanza Romero’s period costumes, though far from looking lived in, do what they can to suggest that the play takes place a century ago.

Phylicia Rashad drapes enough of her familiar sleepy-sly qualities around Aunt Esther like a silken shawl, keeping everything at a serene, smiling distance --- Bill Cosby’s television wife as grandmother --- yet Ms. Rashad’s performance is still cherishable as it is a nod to another era, altogether, that of the Great Ladies of the Theatre who entered to rapturous applause, never got their hands or emotions soiled and remained Great Ladies regardless of whatever characters they were portraying. I was born too late for Lynn Fontanne and Katherine Cornell but Ms. Rashad, glowing in her chair, proves that such creatures, rare as a blue moon, can still be sighted, today --- on the night I attended, the predominantly white Huntington audience warmly responded to Ms. Rashad as the hostess of Mr. Wilson’s play as did Trinity Rep audiences earlier this year when Brian Dennehy strolled through the role of O'Neill's Hughie. Stargazing can be an evening of theatre, in and of itself, and Ms. Rashad’s luster is both the wind and the sails that keeps GEM OF THE OCEAN moving forward.

(In the photograph used for the Huntington poster and program cover, Ms. Rashad appears to be hand-signing; if the captured moment is what I think it is, Ms. Rashad is actually handling some of Solly Two King’s wares --- graciously, of course.)


"Gem of the Ocean" (24 September - 30 October)
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide