A back-alley abortionist working out of a tenement apartment in 1968 Memphis is the formidable central character in Bridgette Wimberly’s “St. Lucy’s Eyes,” a transfer to the Cherry Lane Theater of the well-received Women’s Project & Prods. staging first seen in the spring.
Ruby Dee reprises the role she created for that staging, and when some persistent line problems evaporate, her performance surely will snap into focus to provide the play with the forceful center it needs. Wimberly’s dramaturgy is a bit awkward, as is the direction of Billie Allen, but the play retains interest as a sympathetic portrait of a distinctive woman struggling to reconcile her ideas of right and wrong with those of society and the church.
Dee plays a character identified as Grandma, who in the first scene mixes matter-of-fact advice and tender sympathy as she prepares to perform a $50 abortion on a frightened 17-year-old. Her voice is tart and tough, but rich with weary wisdom. “Will it hurt?” asks the girl. “Honey, everything hurts, eventually,” Grandma replies. With girls now able to go to college and make a career, Grandma sees her service as a way of saving girls from the consequences of their mistakes.
Her husband, Bay (Willis Burks II), sees it otherwise, however, and in the somewhat cluttered climax of the first act, he tosses the $4,000 she’s saved on the floor in outrage — outrage at her dangerous way of earning a living mixed up with accusations that she’s hoarding it for a rainy day that will always be put off.
Also involved is his shame at his inability to provide for her; he’s a sanitation worker participating in a strike. Adding to the somewhat overwrought climax is the sudden arrival of news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; King had come to Memphis to help defuse the tension surrounding the strike.
Wimberly has somewhat overloaded this scene, and director Allen is unable to smoothly negotiate its roiling dramatic currents. Something is amiss when your fatal climax earns the biggest laugh of the evening (this is no fault of Burks, who gives a flavorsome and funny performance as Bay).
The second act, set in 1980, is not without its flaws either. Grandma is arrested and indicted on charges of murder involving a botched abortion; rather neatly, her lawyer turns out to be the frightened young girl from act one, now as steely and forthright as Grandma is frightened and unsure.
Wimberly is more adept at dialogue and character than creating a convincing dramatic arc. “St. Lucy’s Eyes” is not so much a play as a series of disconnected scenes showcasing an admittedly memorable character.