The Signature Theater’s fascinating archeological dig through the history of the Negro Ensemble Company continues with a handsome revival of Samm-Art Williams’ gentle “Home,” a play that wears its old-fashioned sentimental streak on its sleeve. Modern auds experiencing the new production — beautifully designed by Shaun Motley — may waver between genuinely liking the play and genuinely trying to like it, but Kevin T. Carroll’s surefooted turn as the central troubled everyman will likely turn fence-sitters toward “Home.”
Carroll plays Cephus Miles, a North Carolinian farmer and son of farmers coming of age in the second half of the 20th century. The contrast between the pre- and post-civil rights South is astonishing even to someone who grew up in the region: Toiling in the tobacco fields, Cephus’ subsistence-level rural work feels like something out of the distant past, or another country, but the piece’s earliest setting is the 1950s.
“Home” is at its best when it’s specific — Cephus’ detailed memories of his childhood ring true, like the stories of rolling dice with his friends on the expensive concrete tombs in the white section of the local churchyard (our hero has a lucky grave). When he tells us he fell in love with a local girl named Pattie Mae (January LaVoy) who married someone else, the story stings, and when he has to leave home for an unnamed urban den of iniquity, it aches.
Problematically, helmer Ron O.J. Parson has to cloak Williams’ outdated moral grandstanding (Vietnam is over) in nostalgia in order to keep the play from sounding like an elderly sermon, and, as a result, there’s not much to “Home” besides nostalgia. When Cephus is cruelly imprisoned and branded a coward for refusing to be drafted, the injustice is certainly sad, but it’s not as infuriating as one imagines it was when the play premiered in 1980.
There’s also the problem of the occasional inaccuracy: Southern accents vary wildly by region and LaVoy’s is more Scarlett O’Hara than rural N.C. (Carroll gets much closer); at one point someone is garroted with a blackjack (quite difficult); the play’s sound of crickets chirping is nothing like the sound of crickets chirping.
Ultimately, the best thing about “Home” is Carroll. This much unself-conscious sentiment has to be sold with utter sincerity and Carroll gives the play unshakable credibility right up to its final, tearful reunion. He jokes ruefully at liberal advocates who want to “take up his fight” when he’s in prison (“I don’t have no fight. That’s why I’m in here.”) and gives the play a resonance beyond its country-mouse-in-the-city framework.
“There’s no kind of life for a person outside of Crossroads,” admits Pattie Mae near the play’s end. “They don’t understand you.” That, ultimately, is the kernel of truth that “Home” has to hang on, having been stripped of its political relevance. It’s almost enough.