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Arts & Entertainment

Production of 'Gem' does the playwright proud

| Saturday, June 3, 2006

There could be no better tribute to August Wilson's talent and legacy than the Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of "Gem of the Ocean."

This thoroughly solid and highly moving production plays to Wilson's strengths, immersing you in a world where myth, mysticism, folklore and tradition intertwine with harsh and often cruel facts and reality.

It's the ninth of Wilson's series of 10 plays that together form a decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in 20th-century America. The 10th and final play, "Radio Golf," debuted just before Wilson's death last year.

Although one of the most recently written, "Gem of the Ocean" is the opening play of the series. It's set in 1904, a time when the memory of slavery was still very much an active and open sore for many of the play's characters.

Its setting is a house on Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill District, inhabited by Aunt Ester. Ester, a 285-year-old mystic and healer, is often mentioned, but never seen, in Wilson's other plays.

She takes center stage in "Gem of the Ocean" as the young and troubled Citizen Barlow, played by Ed Onipede Blunt, arrives at her home in need of spiritual redemption.

Wilson surrounds Citizen's preparation for and journey to the City of Bones with a wealth of richly drawn characters, each of whom is on an equally intriguing journey or adventure.

Much happens during the two-and-one-half-hour drama. But what sets Wilson apart as a playwright is his ability to create complex -- and often troubled -- characters with lives filled with incident and experience. A storyteller at heart, Wilson allows his characters to tell their individual stories with eloquence, lyricism, lavish imagery, full emotion and often abundant humor.

An accomplished cast -- headed by Lizan Mitchell as Aunt Ester -- creates individual, detailed, immediate performances of characters you come to care about, whether it's the practical good humor of the womanizing wanderer Solly Two Kings, Montae Russell's violent and overbearing Caesar, or Kim Staunton's quietly competent Black Mary. Nor should we overlook Larry John Meyers' Rutherford Selig and Cortze Nance Jr.'s Eli, whose characters lend context and interest to the proceedings.

Director Regge Life uses the intimate thrust-stage setting of the O'Reilly Theater to good advantage. With the audience surrounding the action on three sides, there's a close connection to the characters, their emotions and humanity. The information telegraphs much better in this production than in the Broadway production, which played within the more formal frame of the Walter Kerr Theatre's proscenium stage.

Also aiding that feeling of intimacy and immediacy is Michael Olich's dark, gritty and looming plain wood-framed house that's more appropriate to the play's mood and the lives of these characters than was the more opulent Broadway setting.

Zach Moore's sound design, Lap-Chi Chu's lighting designs and Kathryn Bostic's chilling original music and arrangements provide a spiritually supportive environment for the lushly ritual and ceremonial passage to the City of Bones.

What impresses most is the production's cumulative impact.

Like Citizen Barlow, the audience is conveyed on an unexpected adventure that stirs both emotion and intellect.

Additional Information:

'Gem of the Ocean'

Produced b y: Pittsburgh Public Theater

When : Through June 25. Performances: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, except June 20; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. June 11, 18 and 20.

Admission : $33.50 - $52.50; $12.50 for age 26 or younger in advance for all performances except Friday and Saturday evenings, when rate is available at the door only, beginning one hour prior to curtain

Where : O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown

Details : 412-412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org

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