It’s a good story: A little theater company gets hold of a script by a big playwright and proves itself entirely up to the task. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Brother/Sister Plays” were a major event of the 2009 season (first at McCarter in Princeton, then at the Public and Steppenwolf), and this new work, “Run, Mourner, Run” reflects the themes and distinctive style, although without the scope and African mythic sources, of the earlier powerhouse trilogy.
Adapted from “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” by Randall Kenan, “Mourner” takes place in the rural South and examines the uneasy, unhappy lives of gay men in that world, returning to the destructive homophobia that ran through the trilogy. Although racism is always an underlying issue, the subject here is sexual love, and betrayal is the theme.
When a rich white man (Brian McCann) wants to grab land owned for generations by an African-American family, he arranges a blackmail plan: he hires Dean Williams (Keith Conallen in a subtle performance of longing and despair) who is young, poor and white, to seduce Raymond Brown (Gerard Joseph) who is rich, black and married with children, and living on the downlow.
The scheme works, of course, but only after the two men have fallen in love. Betrayals inevitably pile up, but that predictability doesn’t compromise this pitiless and tender drama, which is less about event than it is a melancholy lament. The passage of time is measured by Dean’s swinging on an old tire hung from a “high and fat sycamore branch” — just as he has for 18 years. At the conclusion, we leave him there, swinging.
What is unusual is in the language, McCraney’s signature devices. Sometimes characters speak in conventional dialogue, singly or together, but sometimes they speak their own stage directions (Raymond says, “Ray narrowed his eyes”), and sometimes they speak description (“The house with its deep enamel sink and wooden stove in the kitchen”) and sometimes they speak narration (“The Cadillac drove off, taking the rain with it”).
Mingled into this discourse are the women: Dean’s grim mother (Amanda Grove), Raymond’s serene, willfully blind wife (Aime Kelly in a standout perf), and old-fashioned Aunt Helen (Melanye Finister). They cling together stage left, while the brutal men, Terell’s Oldest (Jake Blouch) and Terell’s Youngest (Jon Mulhearn) sprawl stage right. No one ever leaves the stage.
Matt Pfeiffer’s sensitive direction makes a Chekhovian ensemble of this disparate group, creating a lovely production of a sad little story and a complicated script.