“The Darker Face of the Earth” is a puzzling theatrical experience. The lead performances are impressive, the language lovely, the narrative relatively compelling, the design attractive and the staging graceful. Yet, from start to finish, the production is uninvolving; “Darker” lacks that elusive, essential, unnamable theatrical spark that really matters.
The fault lies first and foremost with the play itself, based on the myth of Oedipus and written by Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove, who sets her story on a Southern plantation amid the era of slavery. In the prologue, the mistress of the estate, Amalia, has proudly given birth to a mulatto child, sending her husband, Louis LaFarge, into a rage. A very practical doctor convinces Amalia that she can’t keep the child, and he takes the baby off in a basket, telling the slaves that the infant has died.
Twenty years later, the child returns, in the form of a rebellious, educated slave named Augustus Newcastle, whom Amalia purchases, neither knowing they are mother and son. Amalia, once a defiant rule-breaker herself, has become a cold and cruel slave driver, but the handsome, sophisticated Augustus brings her back to life, reminding her of her love for his father, Hector, who has become a demented hermit living on the fringes of the estate. By the end of act one, Amalia and Augustus have begun an affair.
The plantations’ slaves form a Greek-style chorus, singing some traditional songs and generally discussing the way things are headed. The Tiresias figure from Sophocles’ original is transformed here into Scylla, who warns her fellow slaves that Augustus, who is supporting a coming insurrection, is headed toward self-destruction.
Dove’s writing is dense and sporadically stunning, but clearly she’s not fully in control of the dramatic medium. There’s a static feeling to many of the scenes, and Augustus’ gradual march toward the inevitable discovery severely lacks a suspenseful build. Dove draws not just on Sophocles’ masterpiece about fate, but on Shakespeare, Homer, and the Old and New Testaments. This is an ambitious work, thematically rich, structurally eclectic, but too diffuse in its efforts to work as effective drama.
Meanwhile, the actors put forth Herculean efforts, display operatic emotions, and still it all seems for their own benefit and not that of the audience. Jason George, as Augustus; Jacqueline Schultz, Amalia; and Michael McFall, Hector, deliver solid, polished performances but they never draw us into their characters’ internal struggles and their presentational style would be more appropriate in a large theater rather than the intimate Tamarind space.
As Amalia’s pathetic husband, William Schenker goes completely over the top, while as Scylla, Denise Dowse wavers in her accent and doesn’t add much nuance to the play’s most interesting character.
The one remarkable standout is Joy DeMichelle Moore, who plays Phebe, a slave in love with Augustus. Moore provides the perfect example of how an actor can be both stylized and connected emotionally at the same time.
Director Anthony J. Haney should have helped his cast adapt this large play to the small space more effectively. The entire production feels as if it’s bursting at the seams, with actors running through the aisles and lights going on and off on various parts of the stage. Haney certainly brings a kinetic energy to the piece, but it all feels completely controlled. The choral scenes are staged with group poses, as if everything were done for the sake of a photo shoot.
It all looks good, but couldn’t be more unaffecting. It’s the difference between watching the glow of an electric log in a fake fireplace and warming up next to a real fire.