Sitting through Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The America Play” is not unlike a visit to the theme park serving as her central image. The “Great Hole of History” is where onlookers peer down and confront the national mythology as the mighty and famous of yesteryear parade below, and it’s a remote experience to some, a stimulating and involving one to others. Despite one critical miscasting, designer-director Nancy Keystone’s L.A. premiere production brings this phantasmagoric pageant to life with all its dense wordplay and overlapping images, and reflects the ever-adventurous tastes of Pasadena’s Theater@Boston Court.
Parks’ consuming interest in the archaeology of the American character is amply exercised in this story of an African-American gravedigger (Harold Surratt) whose startling resemblance to Abraham Lincoln prompts him to earn a living impersonating the great man while patrons reenact his assassination. Parks, of course, later applied the same conceit to her Pulitzer-winning “Topdog/Underdog,” a warmer and more accessible but much thinner work.
Narrating act one in the third person — because it’s “his-story” — the digger proudly shares the secrets of his eerie profession, but while his eyes remain bright, his spirit breaks with each successive mock murder. This “Foundling Father,” as he’s known, deserted wife and son to follow in the footsteps of greatness, only to find those footsteps were always behind him. He has been deafened by the echoes of the past in his head (enhanced in Randy Tico’s skillful sound design).
Surratt is unaffected and compelling in the exhausting role of an archetypal working stiff (pun intended) for whom life’s hard realities put the kibosh on youthful dreams — Parks’ vision of America as well.
In act two, Keystone’s carnival set has been struck to stunningly transform the stage into a black hole, complete with thick mounds of dirt from proscenium to back wall. Wife Lucy (J. Nicole Brooks) has arrived at a chasm dug, “so say hearsay,” by her long-lost husband in imitation of the theme park at which they honeymooned. Determined to locate his literal and figurative remains, she sets son Brazil (Darius Truly) digging for “wonders” as she prowls with an ear trumpet tuned to the hoped-for whispers of her man’s essence.
Author assigns Lucy mighty labors to restore her house divided, but Brooks is ill suited to them. That she is at least 20 years too young for the role is less significant than her lack of aesthetic weight. Blithe, even giddy where she should be grimly purposeful, she plays at, rather than inhabits, a wife with the single-minded quest of redeeming her husband’s legacy. The couple’s lack of connection creates a major hole in dramatic interest.
Setting aside the second-act slackness, Keystone proves to be a helmer to watch, as she mixes scenes without demanding the audience dwell on them. By refusing to allow thematic resonance to take precedence over the human drama, she avoids the directorial self-indulgence that so often renders nonrealistic plays unwatchable.
Truly is fine as the conflicted son who both echoes and spurns his father, and Alexa Alexander and Lorne Green sparkle in a variety of smaller roles.
Brooks actually begins to catch fire in her 11th-hour incantations to call forth the digger’s spirit, and the final tableau of the Father rigid in his upright coffin with coins on his eyes — Lincoln pennies, naturally — is a chilling metaphor for the inescapable role that the dead past continues to play in our personal and national consciousness.