In her second solo show, "Neat," Charlayne Woodard displays an enchanting ability to paint pictures with words without drawing attention to the delicate artifice involved. The canvas she's using is herself, and both actress and writer shine in a show of sweet and simple pleasures.

In her second solo show, “Neat,” Charlayne Woodard displays an enchanting ability to paint pictures with words without drawing attention to the delicate artifice involved. The canvas she’s using is herself, and both actress and writer shine in a show of sweet and simple pleasures.

With a single chair and a rose laid at the foot of the stage as her only props, Woodard tells the story of her relationship with her beloved aunt Neat (nee Beneatha), beginning with the gripping enactment of a childhood tragedy, when Neat’s grandmother — unable to read the labels on a pair of brown bottles — mistakenly fed the baby camphorated oil instead of cod liver oil, resulting in brain damage.

Southern racism deepens the misfortune, as Neat’s mother runs to the nearest hospital, only to have the white nurses recoil when she tries to give them the baby, “as if she had offered them poison,” Woodard says, revealing in a single, searing image the writer’s intelligence at work behind the seemingly casual storytelling.

As a child of five visiting her aunt and grandmother in Savannah, a world apart from the mostly Jewish suburb where she was raised up north, Woodard recalls the delight she took in having an aunt of 17 who acted her own age, gleefully playing hide and seek with nieces more than 10 years younger.

But when some years later Neat comes to live with Woodard’s family, the teenage Charlayne is mortified. Desperate to fit in — she’s already done battle with her recalcitrant hair, taming it with the aid of Dixie Peach straightener — the young Charlayne is dismayed at the sight of her adult Aunt Neat’s obvious backwardness. “This’ll never go over with Debbie Weinstein,” she wails.

Woodard slips effortlessly from her role as narrator into the skins of the various characters, modulating her rich voice as needed. Under Daniel Sullivan’s graceful direction, there’s nothing showy about the subtle physical transformations she makes, nothing to disturb the intimate mood.

She creates in Neat a moving portrait of a woman stuck forever between childhood and maturity — a girl’s mind lives uneasily in a woman’s body.

It’s a theme that subtly dovetails with the other strands of Woodard’s play, which involve her own journey to adulthood. A growing awareness of her ethnic heritage and the country’s entrenched racism puts an end to Woodard’s amusing infatuation with the Jewish culture that surrounds her, and she draws a nice comic picture of her sexual awakening.

But these passages touch on familiar themes, and don’t have the distinctiveness of her tales of Neat; they’re more “universal,” but somehow less compelling. (And occasionally we feel Woodard stretching for significance, as when she tells of returning from a high-school demonstration that turned violent, answering Neat’s question about the students’ goals by saying meaningfully, “We were looking for answers.”)

It’s the title character, and the scrupulous but sympathetic truth that Woodard brings to her depiction, that gives “Neat” its emotional appeal. Although on the surface she may seem simple, as with so many great characters, there’s a mystery at Neat’s core that Woodard respects, and it’s the mystery that captivates.

Neat

Mark Taper Forum; 760 seats; $37 top

Production

Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum presents a play in two acts written and performed by Charlayne Woodard. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Opened, reviewed Jan. 11, 1998; runs through Feb. 1. Running time: 2 hours, 10 min.

Crew

Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Candice Cain; lighting, Brian Nason; sound, Jon Gottlieb; music, Harold Wheeler; production stage manager, Mary Michele Miner; stage manager, Susie Walsh; Taper artistic director, Gordon Davidson. Opened, reviewed Jan. 11, 1998; runs through Feb. 1. Running time: 2 hours, 10 min.

Cast

Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Candice Cain; lighting, Brian Nason; sound, Jon Gottlieb; music, Harold Wheeler; production stage manager, Mary Michele Miner; stage manager, Susie Walsh; Taper artistic director, Gordon Davidson.
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