At 285 years old and counting, Aunt Ester Tyler has seen her share of love and strife.
The self-assured former slave sits in the kitchen of her modest Pittsburgh home at the dawn of the last century, dispensing advice and reminiscences to all who will listen. She's known around the city as a "washer of souls," a woman capable of cleansing people of their long-held sins.
Aunt Ester (Cynthia Maxwell) sits at the heart of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," a feat of transcendent playwriting imbued with equal parts of pathos and humor. The 2002 play had its local premiere Friday night in the Paul Robeson Theatre in a production directed by Laverne Clay.
This version of Wilson's play is well-paced, engaging and peppered with some excellent performances. But its epic tone and the sense of religious magic that lends the piece its potential brilliance is deflated by some key cast members who are not entirely comfortable in the skins of their characters. This is likely to improve significantly as the actors get a few more performances under their belts.
"Gem of the Ocean" takes place entirely in Aunt Ester's modest kitchen, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. The play opens with an urgent knock on the door. When Aunt Ester's caretaker, Eli (Leon Copeland), opens it, a man named Citizen Barlow (Roger Lamont Killian) tries to barge in to see her. Aunt Ester tells him to come back Tuesday.
Presently we meet old Solly Two Kings (Alton Bowens), a man who speaks softly -- though at length -- and carries a big stick. He's a former slave himself, and romantically interested in Aunt Ester. There's also Black Mary (Ciandre Taylor), Aunt Ester's live-in maid and cook, and Rutherford Selig (the tremendously appealing Dee La Monte Perry), a salesman of household goods who occasionally drops in.
There's talk of a man from the local mill who jumped in the river and drowned after being accused of stealing a bucket of nails. He was pursued by Caesar Wilks (Kinzy Brown), the neighborhood's de facto sheriff and a ruthless property owner, along with a crowd of hundreds who watched him drown.
Meanwhile, Citizen, who is jobless, having just traveled to Pittsburgh from his native Alabama, eventually weasels his way into the house to meet with Aunt Ester, who decides to put him up and give him a sort of spiritual education. In the course of the play, the story lines converge, and Citizen -- as well as the audience -- learns a few vital lessons about history's central role in the struggle toward redemption.
Set design by David Butler is convincing and nicely complemented by Eric Moslow's lighting.
Performances from Brown as the cruel and tragically misguided Caesar, and, in most spots, Bowens as the sage and affable Solly Two Kings are a pleasure to watch. Perry's turn as the minor character Selig seems like too small a role for his talent, and Maxwell's Aunt Ester is self-confident and funny. But Killian, Taylor and, to a lesser extent, Copeland, all have plenty of room to grow into their roles. When they do, the play will grow, as well.
"Gem of the Ocean"
Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Opened Friday in the Paul Robeson Theatre in a production directed by Laverne Clay.