GEM OF THE OCEAN, August Wilson's penultimate play, is actually the chronological beginning of his 10-play cycle dealing with the history and culture of black America in the 20th century. Each play represents a decade, and GEM OF THE OCEAN is set in the post-Civil War Pittsburgh of 1904. It tells the story of Citizen Barlow who has stolen a bucket of nails from the mill where he works. When another man is accused and commits suicide to avoid being labeled a thief, Citizen comes to 285-year-old Aunt Ester, a legendary healer of souls, for relief from his burden of guilt.
The physical production, as is usual at Syracuse Stage, is excellent. Tony Cisek's two-story interior set features a long staircase, a slight rake, an upstage wall studded with recessed shelves containing multi-colored candles and a terrific ship effect. Peter Maradudin's lighting highlights the off-stage entrance areas and combines effectively with the set, especially in the voyage scene.
Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes are very good. Her use of masks along with Michael Keck's music and Todd Mack Reischman's sound combine with the set and lighting to make Christian's spiritual voyage to the mythical City of Bones the most powerful scene in the play.
As Citizen, Chris Chalk gives a very strong performance, especially in the final scenes. Tracy Griswold is also solid as Rutherford Selig, as is David Alan Anderson as Caesar Wilkes. All three create solid well-rounded characters.
I had a problem with Cedric Turner's Eli, Rachel Leslie's Black Mary, (she must have calves of iron from her trips up and down the long staircase), and Ernest Perry Jr.'s Solly. Although the play and the characters have a mythic quality, it seemed as if the actors were playing flat archetypes and never quite became people.
As for Lizan Mitchell, I know she's a good actress having seen her in INTIMATE APPAREL, but she lacks the dramatic weight and presence to carry the larger-than-life role of Aunt Ester.
With its poetic language and mythic themes combined with realism, GEM OF THE OCEAN can be a confusing play. At times I found it so, but that could have been partly due to the fact that I was coming down with the flu. However, it's part of Director Timothy Douglas' job to enable the audience to grasp its complexity. Despite excellent staging, first-rate technical support and good actors, Mr. Douglas doesn't quite manage to make it clear.
This is still a production worth seeing, as August Wilson is a major American playwright and his work is always powerful.
On a scale of one to five the Syracuse Stage/Indiana Repertory/Geva Theatre co-production of GEM OF THE OCEAN gets four oranges. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.