The play Naomi Wallace promises to deliver in “Things of Dry Hours” sounds interesting. Set in Birmingham, Ala., during the Depression and narrated by a dead man, the poetically inclined drama drops early hints that it will force a political showdown between the powerful mining industry and striking miners who have found a patron in the Communist Party. But by keeping the conflict confined to three characters in a single household, scribe drops the pretense of dealing with the period’s big political issues and indulges herself with long-winded speeches signifying little but an authorial taste for overripe imagery.
The dead soul who returns to tell his story travels on a blade of white light (a nicely eerie effect by Marcus Doshi) and lands on Richard Hoover’s spartan set of a poor man’s cottage in the deep South. The man is Tice Hogan (Delroy Lindo), and he immediately launches into an urgent speech establishing time and place (1932 Birmingham) and describing the tense situation between the Tennessee Coal and Iron industrial giant and the suffering miners out on strike.
The tone is vaguely biblical and the language stridently poetical, but Lindo plays Hogan with solemn authority, and his well-delivered speech — in which he identifies himself as a Sunday school teacher and a proud member of the Communist Party — makes a strong impact.
Alas, once inside the house, Wallace writes in a mannered style that makes the walls of the play shrink. Consigning the turbulent political events of the day to offstage, scribe focuses on the domestic tensions that arise when Hogan allows a fugitive white man to take refuge in the house he shares with his crabby daughter, Cali (Roslyn Ruff).
Hogan has good reason to be wary of Corbin Teel (an ill-used Garret Dillahunt), since management spies have been infiltrating both the mineworkers’ union and Communist Party ranks. And in this small, fragile enclave of black power, who can trust a white man, anyway?
But instead of allowing her characters to engage issues of race and political ideology, Wallace opts for the tired convention of igniting a sexual attraction between the intelligent but abrasive Cali and the attractive but illiterate Teel. That leaves the flustered Hogan spouting rambling parables involving apples — until the knives come out.
Helmer Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“The First Breeze of Summer”) does not try to impose a naturalistic framework on this shapeless material. But neither does he find a cohesive form for its disjointed varieties of style, from biblical bluster to poetical poppycock. And while he generally works well with actors, you can’t blame him or fault the thesps for occasionally stumbling over incoherent images like “a chickadee with a cow’s tongue, a wheelbarrow hauling a city, and my own bare ass flashing by in the eye of a beetle.”