After two Obies and a Pulitzer nom, this chamber opera arrives on the regional circuit in grim beauty, with a story as dark as its moody lighting and mournful music. This is a sad, stale tale of an African-American boy of great promise — called simply Running Man — whose life derails in crime and drugs, and whose heartbroken family is left wondering what went wrong.
There is the whiff of sociological case study as a conjure woman, called Seven, shows Running Man’s grieving sister Miss Look some truths of their family life: a mother who pampered her son and taught him French and Latin, and a father, embittered by World War II, who is cold and intolerant of his soft son (compounded by the implication of homosexuality in a scene in which he dons his mother’s clothes and makeup). The sister, who has enabled him too long, finally rejects him in a cavalcade of mixed metaphors about snakes and birds living together.
The upshot of the show’s multiple perspectives is to show that both truth and blame are elusive, although finally, disturbingly, the story suggests that Running Man bears no responsibility for his life, that people are merely products of familial environments: “My mother’s dreams/My father’s schemes/Pelted me like hail.” And the show’s lack of originality is also a setback: “God made me pretty/God made me smart/God made me black.”
The music, played on a nearly bare stage behind the singers, is bluesy and jazzy and operatic, but despite this variety, there is a rarefied sameness of tone and tempo, just as the book is unrelieved by humor or joy. The voices are splendid, uniting in a gorgeous finale, “Sail On,” and the singers’ expressive faces provide an emotional context (Roberta Gumbel is very beautiful and touching as Mother) despite the lack of physical movement.
Running Man as a boy is silently performed by Johnny Jamison, a local sixth-grader making an impressive debut.