To fully appreciate the depth and breadth of quality within the Steppenwolf acting ensemble, seeing the Broadway hit “August: Osage County” won’t suffice. While a good number of the company’s associated members deliver daily doses of high-intensity histrionics in New York, there’s certainly no diminished capacity back home in Chicago, where other Steppenwolf teammates, including some of the theater’s newest, deliver exquisite performances in the estimable, earnest drama “Carter’s Way.”
Written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, the play was commissioned and first performed at Kansas City Rep in 2005 but has since been extensively rewritten. Set in 1935 Kansas City, when the town was producing such great jazz musicians as Count Basie and Charlie Parker, “Carter’s Way” follows a genius African-American saxophonist who falls for an aspiring white chanteuse, despite all the trouble such a love affair must inevitably rain down on him.
Smartly structured to contemplate the way myriad social forces battle with individual aspirations, and how those same aspirations conduct their own war with personal demons, Simonson’s play fundamentally works as both love story and social drama.
But it’s the performances that take this show to a higher level.
James Vincent Meredith, an immensely gifted actor with a booming voice and a huge natural presence, plays the brilliant and arrogant Oriole Carter. He convincingly invests Carter with oversized charisma, and more than a dose of distrust, directed not just at others but inwardly as well. His Carter knows full well that the beautiful and instantly smitten Eunice Fey (Anne Adams) represents his Achilles’ heel — he’s spent time in jail for holding hands in public with a fair-skinned lady before.
In a performance both fully engaged and engaging, Meredith gets exactly the core contradictions in Carter — he’s a man both wholly confident and mildly fearful; he’s a controlling figure, but one who must always follow his passions no matter where they lead him. The chemistry between Meredith and Adams, so essential to the playing out of the plot, comes across as steamy.
Ora Jones (who, like Meredith, joined the Steppenwolf ensemble last year) superbly portrays Oriole’s piano player and arranger Marilyn Stokes. Marilyn is the practical one of the pair, who has managed for quite some time to keep Oriole on the right track, to contain within reason the latent rebelliousness that always threatens to destroy him.
She’s the one who urges him to get out of town after Oriole, in a rash moment meant to sabotage a recording he never really wanted to make, infuriates Eunice’s boyfriend, local mobster and would-be entrepreneur Johnny Russo (Keith Kupferer). Jones expertly exposes Marilyn’s vulnerabilities beneath the collected, knowingly cynical exterior.
K. Todd Freeman, as diminutive club owner Pewee Abernathy, also delivers an extraordinary performance, and an appealingly quirky one, combining dry humor with neurosis to create an oddly lovable panderer.
Simonson shows real skill as a director, staging the music scenes with striking expertise. Darrell Leonard’s original music also helps achieve authenticity, particularly capturing the difference between standard jazz and the moments when Oriole lets loose with innovative inspiration.
The scenes between the lovers still could use fine-tuning; while Simonson has created a complex emotional relationship, the dialogue itself never digs deep enough in these sequences to make us know or care as much about Eunice as we do about Oriole.
The ending still needs help too. “Carter’s Way” seems perpetually poised to unleash devastating, raw emotion, but the final moments ring of formula. It plays, but it’s workmanlike — not really enough for a show about an artist giving into aesthetic and personal abandon.
With those fixes, there’s potentially a memorable work here that could make it more than an obvious candidate for regional theater rounds. But even untouched, you just can’t fault any new play that provides a vehicle for performances like these.