“Blue Door,” Tanya’s Barfield’s heavy drama about a math professor visited by the ghosts of his African-American family, has elements to recommend it, particularly a couple of sturdy, sympathetic performances and a familiar but deep subject that’s treated with a degree of emotional complexity. But it’s also a labored work — both over-controlled and dramatically under-shaped — and therefore feels far, far longer than its 95-minute running time.
Barfield explores a key recurring theme in African-American literature: the necessity of embracing the past to remain whole. In her main character, Lewis (Reg E. Cathey), she has crafted a deeply split individual, a man who has used his nimble intellect and ambition to rationalize away his self-hatred. “You know, Lewis, you’re black,” his wife of 25 years pronounced before leaving him, ostensibly for refusing to attend the Million Man March. “And you’re completely cut off from yourself.”
His wife’s departure serves as catalyst for Lewis to confront some inner demons, and to find a means of embracing his long-ignored legacy.
The entire play takes place, in essence, in Lewis’s mind during an ongoing bout of insomnia. Set designer Dustin O’Neill provides a bare stage of wood planks, with a couple of rows of benches on the sides and some windows that float in from the back as semi-evocative imagery.
Lewis retreats into his head, where he is visited by his great-grandfather Simon, his grandfather Jesse and his late younger brother, the radicalized Rex, all played by Larry Gilliard Jr. in a solid, vocally varied performance. Under Leah C. Gardiner’s direction, Gilliard makes quite a bit of characters who, while we learn a lot about them, never quite achieve three dimensions.
The stories of slavery and semi-freedom that Simon and Jesse tell have genuine resonance, and they evolve over time into a generational tale of hope turned to tragedy. But “Blue Door” never quite finds its form: It’s not quite a traditional memory play, or a dream play, or even a time-bending fantasia. Simon and Jesse speak not to Lewis but directly to the audience; Lewis has invited them into his head, but he doesn’t really engage.
The truly pivotal figure in Lewis’s history, his father, Charles, gets remembered but not fully embodied, which limits the climactic moments when Lewis puts a finger on the source of his agony.
The show receives a significant boost from Cathey’s perf, which is beautifully nuanced, emotional but not sentimental. He allows us to see the pain of this man, even though his exterior mostly remains coldly elegant.
But the headiness of this work does drag it down. It’s a play that communicates its themes with some force, but never makes them theatrically buoyant. The result is staid and studied, but not uninteresting.