It seems that director Jonathan Wilson does not believe in art for art's sake. He has placed his production of Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" within a Hartford Stage Co. AIDS awareness program, complete with brochures in the foyer and solicitations by members of the cast after each performance for contributions to AIDS research. This is not a great classical production of the play, but nevertheless, this rendition of one of the greatest tragedies ever written immediately grabs its audience and holds it spellbound throughout.

It seems that director Jonathan Wilson does not believe in art for art’s sake. He has placed his production of Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” within a Hartford Stage Co. AIDS awareness program, complete with brochures in the foyer and solicitations by members of the cast after each performance for contributions to AIDS research. In addition, he has set his production in present-day Africa, where 45 million people have the disease and 13 million have already died from it, and has it performed on an open-air stage created on the HS’ indoor stage as it is watched by a handful of African AIDS patients. This is not a great classical production of the play, with masks or high stylization or soaring classical acting; it’s comparatively naturalistic. Nevertheless, this production of one of the greatest tragedies ever written immediately grabs its audience and holds it spellbound throughout, as the play has via thousands of different directorial conceits over the 2,400 years or so since it was written.

Of the African-American cast, only one really has the vocal and histrionic equipment to fully cope with the play’s demands: Michael Early, the production’s Creon, who gives an impressively clear, virile performance. Yet everyone in the cast performs with such compelling commitment that even the less capable acting has the ring of truth about it. All are helped by the brisk, non-anachronistic English-language adaptation used.

There is one basic problem. Because of the comparatively naturalistic approach Wilson has opted for, the age of his actors in the central roles is of importance. And so it seems wrong that the actors playing Oedipus (Reg Flowers), Jocasta (Stephanie Berry) and Creon should all appear to be in their early 30s. After all, Jocasta is not only Oedipus’ wife, she’s also his mother with Creon her brother. And so surely Jocasta and Creon should be considerably older than Oedipus. And Oedipus himself should be older, as he has ruled as King of Thebes for many years, according to the text.

Had the ages of the actors in these three roles been more apt, the production would be even more effective. Within the limitations of their ages, Flowers gives a deft if lightweight portrayal of an Oedipus who is more fear-wracked man than tyrannical king of a dying city; Berry is a Jocasta of physical beauty and regal comportment. Novella Nelson brings her solid presence to the Priestess who acts, in part, as Chorus, though sometimes she blurs her lines. Lou Ferguson’s blind Teiresias uses a West Indian accent effectively, and Helmar Augustus Cooper brings bucolic humor to his role as the Messenger of Corinth. Members of Hartford’s African-American the Artists Collective are the production’s dancers and musicians (the latter complemented by multi-reed instrumentalist Rene McLean and percussionist Okyerema Asante). The musicians are particularly persuasive, punctuating the action with a fascinating percussion, reed and bird-song score by McLean.

Scott Bradley has designed a highly imaginative stage within a stage. The bulk of the HS’ thrust stage is covered with tamped-down earth, a few straggly clumps of dead grass here and there. At the rear is a brick wall with a burnt and crumbling top. It has a semi-circular opening arching over a circular raised inner stage, on which most entrances and exits are made. There’s a brilliant visual coup at the end of the production as lighting designer Kevin Snow raises his lights to a blinding white glare to accompany the final peroration following Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ self-blinding. Susan Hilferty’s African costumes make fine use of native fabrics and jewelry.

It’s been a while since Connecticut has seen an “Oedipus the King,” so this Hartford Stage production is doubly welcome even if the AIDS awareness program surrounding it is, strictly speaking, beside the Sophocles point.

Oedipus the King

Hartford Stage Co., Hartford, Conn.; 489 seats; $55 top

Production

A Hartford Stage Co., in collaboration with the Artists Collective, presentation of the play in one act by Sophocles, translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald; text consultant Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Jonathan Wilson.

Crew

Set, Scott Bradley; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Snow; original music, Rene McLean; sound, David Stephen Baker; choreographer, Kevin Iega Jeff; production stage manager, Stacy P. Hughes. Hartford Stage Co. artistic director, Michael Wilson; the Artists Collective executive director, Dollie McLean. Opened Jan. 17, 2001; reviewed Jan. 31. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Cast

Oedipus - Reg Flowers Priestess, an Elder of Thebes - Novella Nelson Creon - Michael Early An Elder of Thebes - Jenard Burks Teiresias - Lou Ferguson Jocasta - Stephanie Berry Messenger of Corinth - Helmar Augustus Cooper Shepherd - Lawrence James Servant in the Royal Household - Andi Jackson Ali Attendant - Michelle Morales
Patients: Ronald M. Bush, Troy Dean, Saundra Foster, Christine Robinson, Gregory E. Stallings, Leroy Williams, Kyle Wrentz.
Dancers and onstage musicians: members of Hartford's the Artists Collective, augmented by Rene McLean and Okyerema Asante.
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