August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” is a surefire crowdpleaser in the right hands, such as those of the Fountain Theater, which has produced a vigorous revival. Set in 1904 and thus chronologically the first entry in August Wilson’s phenomenal 10-decade distillation of the African-American experience, “Gem” is far from the cycle’s most complex or adventurous leg. But the eloquence with which it addresses Wilson’s themes of historical roots and identity serves as an excellent introduction to the masterworks to follow.
Designer Travis Gale Lewis precisely appoints the cycle’s much-discussed, rarely seen interior of 1839 Wylie Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa., the sanctuary in which venerable Aunt Ester (Juanita Jennings) — now 285 years old and destined almost to ring in the millennium — consoles and heals those struggling with slavery’s legacy and emancipation’s withheld promises.
Beyond her door, oppressed black mill workers find conditions even more intolerable than under a plantation whip, while at her threshold appear the likes of Citizen Barlow (Keith Arthur Bolden), living up to his symbolic moniker as a young Alabama refugee obsessed with his one great sin.
“Down here it’s a war, and the battlefield’s bloody,” advises Underground Railroad vet Solly Two Kings (a superb Adolphus Ward), but Citizen needs purgation — with Aunt Ester’s mystical intercession — before he’s ready to join the ranks.
Helmer Ben Bradley gives appropriate weight to these heavy matters. Yet just as gatekeeper Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter) can stop to indulge a shuffle step while opening the door to bad news, this revival keeps shifting smoothly into the rhythms and joys of life lived easily in spite of everything. The connection between Citizen and wary housekeeper Black Mary (Tene Carter Miller), allowed to develop at a measured pace, becomes integral to theme rather than a tacked-on romance.
Thesps aren’t all equally facile with Wilson’s lengthy character arias, though Ward and Poindexter offer a veritable acting class in letting the words serve the character. While Wilson’s young females are probably his least compelling characters, Miller finds rare depth and variety in Mary.
Jennings’ Old Testament rectitude and unexpected bawdy streak ground Ester in the moment, though more of an ethereal quality would avail her when the shaman comes to the fore.
Mary’s policeman brother Caesar (Rodney Gardiner) is mishandled. Following the precept from Ester’s favorite book to “judge not, lest ye be judged,” Wilson permits Caesar ample personal and political justification for serving as righteous avenging angel among his fellow blacks. Yet Gardiner’s pronounced enjoyment of the cop’s sadism makes him a stock villain, robbing character of one titanic moment of awareness when Mary reveals his true self.
And helmer’s over-reliance on technology is disruptive, whether it be the incessant (and increasingly phony) sound effects of dogs barking or the African-influenced images visually linking scenes. Citizen’s ritual cleansing — as drums, chanting and masks take him by sea to the “City of Bones” where Middle Passage victims were laid to rest — is terrifying enough without Marc Rosenthal’s over-literal rear-wall projections pulling us squarely out of 1904 into the present day.