What better way to mourn a major playwright than with a passionate production of his play that ends with the line, “So, live!” The injunction seems, now, with August Wilson’s death still fresh in everyone’s mind, to extend beyond the thematic fervor of “Gem of the Ocean” and to apply to the 10-play chronicle that is Wilson’s legacy to American drama.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who played Caesar in the New York production, makes his impressive directorial debut, moving the many and varied scenes along with vigor and urgency.
His fine cast strikes the crucial balance between realism and mysticism, between Big Meaning (“What good is freedom if you can’t do nothin’ with it?”) and naturalistic dialogue; both John Amos and Russell Hornsby, who carry the burden of theme as well as exposition, manage this balance with remarkable believability.
This production’s Caesar, Keith Randolph Smith, is fascinatingly self-righteous, a vicious convert to the Law, setting the penal code against the Bible.
Phylicia Rashad commands the stage with all the authority of Aunt Ester, shifting seamlessly from tired old lady to primal conjure woman. Only Roslyn Ruff is too restrained, making more of a puzzle of her character than Black Mary needs to be.
The slightly off-kilter set, designed by Michael Carnahan, an impossibly high staircase, immense windows, a tilted doorframe — emphasizes the fine line between the domestic and the supernatural, while Jane Cox’s lighting design alternates between sunny warmth and weird, lurid gleams.
Karen Perry’s costume designs are full of charm and authenticity — the transformations for the exorcism scene when Citizen Barlow pays his Jungian visit to the bowels of the ship abandoned during the Middle Passage are spectacular: suddenly African, suddenly naked.
All told, this production is engrossing theater as well as a fine tribute.