Here’s the problem with August Wilson plays. Too many people consider the act of seeing them to be a civic or cultural duty.
After all, August Wilson is the most prominent playwright ever to come out of Pittsburgh, and he wrote plays that are set in Pittsburgh, and until his death in 2005 he was the foremost African American playwright of the age, and his plays are on required reading lists everywhere (as if reading a play were anything remotely like seeing it performed.) So there you have it. A staggering quadruple-barreled sense of DUTY. It keeps a lot of people from ever going to see the plays — because hey, this is your night out, and you want to have a good time, not fulfill a duty. And it brings a lot of other people to the theater in a less-than-optimum frame of mind — on the lookout for, you know, symbolism and meaning and importance.
So here is a radical suggestion. What if one were to go see “Gem of the Ocean” just because it’s a good play? Entertaining, yet moving? Idiosyncratic and rambling, like all of Wilson’s plays, yet highly accessible? No Spark Notes needed, folks. You could not miss the symbolism if you tried, so don’t even worry about it. Just kick back and watch the actors being those people they play.
The Pittsburgh Playwrights production of “Gem of the Ocean,” which runs through June 24, is Wilson done right. The strong cast and direction are only part of the reason. Originally scheduled for the proscenium stage of the August Wilson Center downtown, the play has shifted to a longer run in a smaller, more intimate setting a block away, upstairs at 937 Liberty Avenue.
That is an excellent decision, because Wilson’s plays are the intimate kind. The action typically takes place in some neighborhood gathering spot — such as a local restaurant, or, as in “Gem,” inside a notable house in the Hill District — and you are invited to come in, park yourself down and eavesdrop. Which the space here allows you to do. There are no bad seats. It’s happening right in front of you. You can see the whites of their eyes.
If you have never enjoyed a Wilson play, “Gem of the Ocean” is a logical one to start with. Of the 10 plays in his so-called Pittsburgh Cycle, one set in each decade of the 20th century, “Gem” comes first, set in 1904. And if you’re already a Wilson fan, you know why “Gem” is special. Aunt Ester (Chrystal Bates), the mystical spiritual healer who is an offstage presence in other plays, makes her only actual appearance in this one, as a central character.
Citizen Barlow (Jonathan Berry) has done something dreadful, so he comes to Aunt Ester to have his soul washed. And oy, is he in for a washing. To say more would give spoilers. Therefore, I will leave you with a brief FAQ and ticketing details . . .
Does Aunt Ester perform magic in this play? Yes.
How does “Gem” deal with race relations? Brutally, per the fashion of the period portrayed, yet also subtly. For instance Selig, the lone white character (played by David Crawford), is not the villain. That would be Caesar, a black man (played by Wali Jamal), and a walking menace in spite of himself.
What is the best part of the play? Hard to choose. Not the opening, which is somewhat slow. But pretty soon it picks up steam, then it rocks. Let’s say the whole rest of it.
Genre mashup? It’s melodrama meets Chekhov. Actually, compared to some of Wilson’s other plays, this one is not so Chekhovian. But as Chekhov himself admitted, sometimes less Chekhov is a good thing. And “Gem” is great melodrama. Yes indeed, you will find yourself rooting for the good guys, and hissing (at least mentally) when the bad guy comes in — all of that.
Is “Gem of the Ocean” really three hours long? With intermission, yes. But that is 14 minutes shorter than the movie “Titanic,” 22 minutes shorter than the redux version of “Apocalypse Now,” 58 minutes shorter than “Gone With the Wind,” and a whopping 96 shorter than “Deathly Hallows” Parts 1 and 2. Besides, do you have a problem with getting your money’s worth?
“Gem of the Ocean” is at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, upstairs at 937 Liberty Avenue downtown, Thursdays-Sundays June 7-10, June 14-17, and June 21-24. (Sat. June 9 is a 3 PM matinee only.) Tickets $25, students and seniors $20. Reserve at pghplaywrights.com/gem.
Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.