The 17-year-old protagonist in Lynn Nottage's "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" is free to indulge in Hollywood-fueled fantasies, but she also must confront the less glamorous reality of life in a troubled African-American family in Brooklyn in 1950.

The 17-year-old protagonist in Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is free to indulge in Hollywood-fueled fantasies, but she also must confront the less glamorous reality of life in a troubled African-American family in Brooklyn in 1950. As in the playwright’s “Intimate Apparel,” which world preemed at Center Stage in 2003, this 1995 play considers how individual personalities are affected by segregated social conditions. Although the earlier play shows signs of a young writer trying to cram too much sociology and biography into the allotted two hours, this crowd-pleasing comic melodrama succeeds here despite an unevenly acted production.

One of the play’s most pleasing elements is the freshness embodied by the youthful protag, Ernestine Crump (Amina S. Robinson), who serves as narrator, presenting the facts of her mundane life and also indulging in acted-out, idealized versions of what she’d like her family life to be. The interplay between reality and fantasy makes for a lively narrative structure, ensuring standard kitchen-sink dramatics are balanced with emotionally heightened scenes that might as well be set in Joan Crawford’s living room.

This precocious teen’s humorous outlook keeps self-pity at bay, and the witty tone ensures even the most ponderous themes are handled in entertaining fashion. When Ernestine and her younger sister, 15-year-old Ermina (Edwina Findley), engage in sibling banter, there’s an agreeable blend of seriousness and silliness. It also helps that both actors inhabit their roles with the enthusiasm of girls eager for combat.

Much of the actual familial battling involves their well-intentioned but religiously strict widowed father, Godfrey (LeLand Gantt), who has brought the family from rural Florida to urban Brooklyn.

The ensuing social stress, reminiscent of August Wilson’s decade-by-decade saga of the 20th century African-American experience, would be enough thematic material for a viable play. Nottage, however, throws two more ingredients into her potential potboiler: Godfrey’s extroverted and allegedly communist sister-in-law, Lily Ann Green (Kelly Taffe), comes to stay; and Godfrey’s chance encounter with a German immigrant, Gerte (Patricia Ageheim), leads to a hasty interracial marriage.

Although Nottage makes the melodramatic mix work, she’s overly self-conscious with the circa 1950 political name-dropping. Similarly, she resorts to a heavy-handed concluding narration that tries to account for every plot crumb on the Crump table.

There’s also an unwieldy feel to director David Schweizer’s handling of the cast, making the perfs seem less related than the characters. Gantt underplays his role to such an extent that supposedly stern Godfrey often seems like a passive bystander in scenes where he should take charge; Taffe overplays Godfrey’s admittedly theatrical sister-in-law so extremely that the play’s otherwise delicate balance between reality and fantasy tilts toward camp.

Even when the cast is searching for a cohesive performance style, a consistent backdrop is provided by James Noone’s bluntly whimsical set, which juxtaposes the realistic Crump apartment with the backing proscenium arch and other architectural fragments worthy of a movie palace.

Equally consistent are David Burdick’s period-appropriate costumes and other tech credits, making it easy and enjoyable to spend time with this Brooklyn teen coming of age in a changing society.

Crumbs From the Table of Joy

Center Stage, Baltimore; 400 seats; $60 top

Production

A Center Stage presentation of a play in two acts by Lynn Nottage. Directed by David Schweizer. Choreography, Michael J. Bobbitt.

Creative

Set, James Noone; costumes, David Burdick; lighting, Alexander Nichols; sound, Mark Bennett; speech consultant, Gillian Lane-Plescia; dramaturg, Liana Thompson; production stage manager, Mike Schleifer. Opened, reviewed May 10, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Gerte Crump - Patricia Ageheim Ermina Crump - Edwina Findley Godfrey Crump - LeLand Gantt Ernestine Crump - Amina S. Robinson Lily Ann Green - Kelly Taffe

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