Despite a few cumbersome plot machinations, this tune-tinged legiter is an entertaining, often hilarious sojourn through the life and times of the thoroughly upscale and outrageously dysfunctional Clark family of South Carolina. Production offers a refreshing glimpse into the inner workings of a black family whose joys and woes are anything but stereotypical. Scripter Charles Randolph-Wright has created an intriguing ensemble of unique individuals, brought to vivid life by an outstanding eight-member ensemble led by Phylicia Rashad, Diahann Carroll and Clifton Davis.
Set in the fictional small town of Kent, Randolph-Wright’s tale is told in flashback as young adult Reuben Clark (Jacques C. Smith) interacts with his 12-year-old persona, Young Ruben (Jovun Fox), recalling life in the prosperous Clark household during the 1970s, dominated by his hyper-materialistic mother Peggy (Rashad). For many generations, the Clarks have operated the town’s lone African-American mortuary and business is thriving, thanks to the hard work of Ruben’s father Samuel Clark Jr. (Davis), aided by Ruben’s less than enthusiastic older brother Samuel Clark III (Chris Butler).
Peggy, a former high fashion model, spends the money almost as fast as hubby can earn it in her high-minded desire to express her personal sense of superiority over the rest of the townsfolk. Aside from material goods and the family’s image, her only other passion is the music of mainstream pop singer Blue Williams (Michael McElroy), whose recordings she constantly plays. The only individual that is an emotional match for Peggy is her outspoken mother-in-law Tillie (Carroll), who abhors Peggy’s high-tone, extravagant ways.
The storyline evolves like a sitcom, sprinkled with snappy dialogue and witty repartee as Peggy rules the household with a comical haughtiness, expressing deep affection for Young Ruben and husband Samuel, while thrusting barbed comments at rebellious Sam III and disgruntled Tillie. Randolph-Wright slowly insinuates a darker element to the proceedings whenever the music of Blue Williams is being sounded. Helmer Sheldon Epps, the Pasadena Playhouse artistic director who also staged last year’s off-Broadway Roundabout Theatre preem, is aided by the attractive multi-level, modular set of James Leonard Joy that allows for the seamless integration of azure-clad McElroy (vocalizing to a pre-recorded score) in and out of the action, unseen by the ensemble.
The second act moves forward 15 years, revealing the indiscretion behind Peggy’s deep-seated attachment to singer Blue Williams and her desire that Ruben become a success outside the family business.
The playwright resorts to some creaky explication to justify the plot twists that eventually reunites an alienated Ruben with his mother and turns former bad boy Sam III into an upstanding funeral home entrepreneur, but the production manages to sail along on the strength of the finely detailed performances.
Rashad is a laser-tongued delight as Peggy. She exudes an impenetrable aura of entitlement as she purrs over her new pair of fur coats, “The credit card just flew out of my hand.” Carroll’s no-nonsense Tillie, whose disapproving stare speaks volumes, matches her.
Davis handles the production’s most difficult character with aplomb. He manages to give credence to a personality that is a confident businessman and loving father, yet subservient to the outrageous whims of his wife. Butler is quite effective as the Afro-sporting teen who evolves into the balding businessman who comes to learn, “You cannot escape the power of our family’s arrogance.”
Smith does a good job managing Ruben’s evolution from emotionally distraught momma’s boy to confident music producer. Also lending solid support is Felicia Wilson as Sam III’s loudly uncultured hometown girlfriend, LaTonya Dinkins.
Fox’s Young Ruben is correctly callow as the baby in the family but has a bit of trouble with his diction.
The melodious but unspectacular songs of Nona Henryx (music) and Hendryx/Randolph-Wright (lyrics) lend a proper mood as they wend their way through the proceedings.