Signature Theater Company kicks off its seasonlong tribute to the Negro Ensemble Company with a finely etched revival of Leslie Lee’s ensemble drama “The First Breeze of Summer,” a fitting representation of the NEC’s historic role as a fertile creative hub for African-American writers and actors. As he showed two seasons back at the same venue with his staging of “Seven Guitars,” actor-turned-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson is a skilled and sensitive guide of a large cast; his efforts help counter a certain long-windedness and locate the universal themes in this overstuffed but affecting play, about three generations of a black family in small-town Pennsylvania.
The rarely revived play premiered at St. Marks Playhouse in 1975 before moving to Broadway for a short run the same year. It weaves together gentle, naturalistic melodrama, unfolding over an airless June weekend, with dreamy lapses into the memories of beloved family matriarch Gremmar Lucretia Edwards, inhabited here with melancholy grace by Leslie Uggams.
Like the work of Lee’s more widely produced contemporary, August Wilson, “The First Breeze of Summer” is infused with references to social history, racial inequality and entrenched everyday exploitation of black Americans. But those political undertones are buried deeper within the textures of old-fashioned family drama.
While it has seven major characters and as many secondary ones, the play focuses primarily on Gremmar and grandson Lou (Jason Dirden). Now in her 70s and nearing the end of her life, Lucretia reflects back on her three lost loves, while Lou’s self-acceptance issues contribute to his harsh reaction when his grandmother’s saintly image is tarnished by revelations from her past.
Their twin emotional journeys are never quite as balanced as they should be, in part because Dirden’s performance has less depth than that of Uggams, or the luminous Yaya DaCosta as her younger self. He gets the uneasy pain of the quiet, stuttering late-adolescent boy, struggling with his sexuality, with his academic and professional ambitions and with expectations for him to follow older brother Nate (Brandon Dirden) into the family plastering business. But, perhaps as much due to shortcomings in the writing as to the performance, Lou’s climactic explosion of rage feels less like a real expression of anguish than a dramatic device.
Lucretia, however, is a richly drawn character who provides the play with a vibrant emotional center. Her flashbacks, retreating into memories of 50 or 60 years earlier, are fluidly integrated into the main action, with poignant notes coming from Uggams’ presence — clutching a handkerchief to her throat, observing with fondness or in troubled silence the exchanges between her younger self and three different men who, for various reasons, failed to commit to a life with her.
An advocate for living according to the rules of the heart, Lucretia is a religious woman who has never denied her sensuality. The mother of three children by different fathers, she refuses to feel guilt for her choices but is clearly burdened by the sacrifices, compromises, secrets and disappointments of her life. These aspects are echoed with complexity and understated sorrow in both Uggams’ and DaCosta’s performances. Gilbert Owuor and John Earl Jelks give especially strong support as two of her lovers.
Michael Carnahan’s homey set — complete with front porch and full of insightful, unflashy details — swiftly places the family in a modest but comfortable suburban environment, while Karen Perry’s costumes capture the distinct periods. Santiago-Hudson folds these craft contributions, along with sparing use of Bill Sims Jr.’s music, into a vivid evocation of the characters’ world, with a cheap print on the dining room wall of Millet’s “The Gleaners” identifying them as hard-working and humble, even if they have moved up to the middle class.
Orbiting around Lucretia, her family members all make warm impressions, notably Keith Randolph Smith as Lou and Nate’s father, too stuck in his head-down, acquiescent mentality to support his youngest son’s dreams or to acknowledge when penny-pinching white contractors are taking advantage of him. Brenda Pressley brings feistiness and a fine singing voice to Lucretia’s widowed daughter Edna. And Brandon Dirden’s Nate nicely straddles the divide of a young man tied to his family but itching to distance himself from their churchy ways.
An extended first-act scene in which the zealous local preacher (Harvy Blanks) coaxes each of the family members to testify to God’s bounty is an example of the talky play’s tendency to ramble and digress, but also of the care and nonjudgmental honesty with which it depicts these ordinary lives. Despite its slightly overwrought crescendo, the increasingly moving drama remains involving, distinguished by some nuanced acting and by Lee’s delicate balance of religion and reality, human flaws and dignity, humor, tenderness and pathos.