Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' is an American classic.

The 1948 film, directed and scripted by John Huston, was based on a 1927 novel by B. Traven (a pen name for Berwick Traven Torsvan). The movie starred Humphrey Bogart and Huston's father, Walter; in an uncredited role, it marked the feature film debut of Robert Blake, as a young boy selling lottery tickets.

Nearly 60 years passed after Traven's death, before his estate granted permission for the book to be used again. Actor/writer Herb Robins, who ran a theater company in Sierra Madre for many years, adapted the story for the stage; it debuted at the San Jose Stage Company in 2004.

Now California Stage has brought the work to Sacramento, under the direction of Mike Yazzolino. The story, which follows the lives of three greedy men searching for gold in the mountains of Mexico, has its roots in the Great Depression; it's thus not only an entertaining piece of theater, but an all too timely one at that.

Davis' own Mitch Agruss plays Howard (the Walter Huston role), the grizzled old prospector who lures two indigent former oil workers to join forces with him on a quest into the Sierra Madre mountains, to search for gold. Agruss is an absolute delight as a gold-hunting addict with a firm grasp on the reality of his obsession:

'I never knew a prospector who died rich. Make a fortune, sure to blow it tryin' to find another.'

Tomas F. Maguire is quite strong as Fred C. Dobbs (the Bogart role), the older, avaricious drifter who has partnered with the younger Curtin (Derek Byrne). Maguire persuasively transforms from a money-hungry drifter to a paranoid miner, whose greed drives him to do unconscionable things and ultimately is his undoing.

Byrne gives a solid, though not strong performance as Curtin, a young man transformed by his experiences on the mountain. At moments, Byrne is quite good; at other times, he seems awkward.

Fred Goraieb is deliciously dastardly as 'Gold Hat,' the bandito who utters the movie's most famous line: 'Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges.'

Fortunately, the line comes early in Act 2, bringing the expected titters from an audience who knows it's coming, and can't wait for it to arrive.

Eric Baldwin plays LeCaud, a geologist who follows the trio up the mountain, claiming to know where to find the mother lode. His character doesn't seem to 'fit' into the story. The way this script is written, in short vignettes, LeCaud adds little to the point of the action.

The set design - the program doesn't credit anybody - nicely utilizes the California Stage space, with a large mountain and smaller rocks on which the men sit and recline, and larger spaces filled by tumbleweeds. The backdrop suggests the Mexican desert's bleak landscape.

I wish I knew more about the value of gold dust, because this play's bags (containing small amounts of sand) seem awfully tiny to represent a small fortune. Likewise, much disbelief must be suspended in certain sections of the play, as with an explosion in the offstage mine; it partially buries and nearly kills Dobbs, yet takes only 10 seconds from start to rescue.

Overall, though, this is an excellent production. The performances are good; the sets, costume and lighting are compelling; and the theater even provides lap blankets, for those feeling cold because of the night air that wafts in through the cracks in the old building.

A word of caution, though: If you park along the light rail tracks on R Street, be sure your car clears the tracks! A car on opening night blocked the incoming light rail train, and had to be towed by the police.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Frank Talk

During a career that spanned more than 60 years, Frank Sinatra apparently recorded just about every song ever written.

That was the big problem facing Stephen Peithman, as he and Martha Dickman prepared the 2009 Citizens Who Care concert, 'May We Be Frank?'

This marks the 17th year for the popular annual event, the original brainstorm of Barbara Kado, who conceived it as a one-time fundraiser for the Yolo County organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for the frail elderly and their family caregivers.

The performance takes place this weekend at the Veterans' Memorial Center, 203 E. 14th St., Davis. Curtain times are 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

For tickets or additional information, call (530) 758-3704 or visit

Kado and her planning committee had come up with the concert idea, to be held at the recently renovated and reopened Woodland Opera House. The theme was 'Gershwin, etc.' The program would focus on Gershwin's music, but since not all the performers felt comfortable singing Gershwin, other music would be included (hence, the 'etc.').

The show would involve several Yolo County performers, including the Davis High School Jazz Choir, under the direction of Richard Brunelle. And at some point during the planning process, the organizers realized that they needed an emcee: someone who could help shape the show and to tie it all together.

'Barbara had done a yeoman's job, but she felt it needed to go a little further; she called me, and I said I would help,' remembers Peithman, who inherited the show 'as it was.' His job was to write the narration and find connections between the various songs.

Lenore Heinson, for example, was singing Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting's 'Too Marvelous for Words.' Whiting had been a good friend of Gershwin's, which was Peithman's 'connection' to the title of the show.

'Gershwin, etc.' was a great success, and the next step was inevitable.


Peithman was asked if he'd consider doing another one.

'That first show wasn't as coherent as I would have liked,' he admitted, and he already had ideas for future shows. He wanted to start from scratch and re-shape the thing.

'It wasn't perfect for the first few years. If nothing else, you learn what works and what doesn't.'

Now, after 17 hears, Peithman has it down to a science.

'First, you come up with an idea. It has to be thought through very carefully, because several factors are involved. It has to be a good collection of songs. It has to be entertaining. People have to enjoy the songs in some fashion. In most cases, they're well known to a good portion of the audience, but it's also nice to throw in things that aren't as well known.'

The second thing to consider is the performers, and what they do well. Fortunately, this show boasts a number of fairly 'regular' performers. Peter Shack, for example, is the only singer who has been in every single show. (Even Peithman had to miss one, when he had an unavoidable time conflict.)

Lenore Sebastian missed a year when she and her husband, Gil, were doing a production of 'Guys and Dolls.' She was missed.

'Lenore really loves to sing the bluesy torch songs,' Peithman said.

'We're all closet saloon singers,' Sebastian said. 'We all have that little fantasy of a dark, smoky room and a piano, and a slinky dress, and hanging over the piano with a microphone, singing torch songs.

'If heaven exists, that's what I want.'

'Bob Bowen likes a song he can have fun with,' Martha Dickman added. 'He really enjoys that kind of thing.'

'People expect me to do a funny character song, with maybe a few steps in it,' Bowen laughed. 'Then I get out of the way for the people with real talent.'

It was more difficult to find numbers for Bowen this year, Peithman admitted.

'Sinatra didn't do 'comedy' songs. Even his upbeat numbers tended to be more of the 'ring-a-ding-ding' type than actual comedy.'

Additionally, when putting everything together, the show must tell a story.

'That's extremely important,' Peithman emphasized. 'It's not just a series of songs, although we could do that: 'Our next song is...' But the most successful shows are the ones that have a strong 'through line,' with a beginning, middle and end. You have a sense of a connection, as you move through the concert, and that it's part of a greater story.'

But how can one program a beginning, middle and end of a career as long as Sinatra's ... in a show running no more than two or three hours? Previous CWC shows have concentrated on composers and/or lyricists; this would be the first time the ensemble would focus on the songs of a single performer.

'Sinatra's music is amazing,' said accompanist Jim Croghan. 'Such an extensive song book. Phenomenal.'

'The problem with Sinatra is that he recorded almost every song that was ever written,' Peithman said. 'Where do you start? Do you start with Sinatra when he was doing the Hoboken Four, or when he went to work for Harry James, or when he moved to Tommy Dorsey, or when he went to Hollywood, or when he married Ava Gardner?

'I had to get things under control, so we decided to start when he divorced Gardner. Not for that reason, but that was when he took charge of his own career; in fact, she helped him. He started charting his own path in 1953 and '54. He invented the concept album, where he would put together a series of songs around a particular theme, and then ask some songwriter to write a song or two to add to it.

'The album usually was named after the new song. I found that fascinating.'


The germ of the idea for the 2010 show may already be in place, as the cast prepares this year's production.

It has become close to a yearlong process. Peithman comes up with a concept, then an initial list of songs, and then he gets together with Dickman.

'We look over the songs,' Peithman said, 'and we start thinking about who can sing this song or that song. We start vetting the idea pretty early.'

Getting back to Sinatra, Peithman's first list of possible songs covering the period he wanted to highlight ran to some 300 tunes.

'This has been hell,' he confessed, 'trying to bring the numbers down to something manageable.'

By the time he met with Dickman for the first time, he had whittled the list down to 75: about twice the number that would end up in the final production.

'At one point, I said to Martha, let's just sit down and figure out what songs people won't forgive us for, if we don't do them.' ('My Way' made the cut, Dickman assured me.)

'No, we won't be doing some other well-known Sinatra songs,' Peithman said, sadly.

'We just don't have time,'

The performers have input and may request certain songs, but everything must fit the format of the story, and the structure of the script.

'You must have some variety over the time that we're in the theater,' Peithman said, 'because you can't have 10 ballads in a row. Most of the stories we tell are chronological, so that means sometimes somebody will say 'I'd like to sing these three songs.' If they all were written at the same time, we can't have all three in a row, so I have to say, 'We'll give you this one here, and then the others later.'

When the songs finally are chosen, it's time to start rehearsing. The proper accompanist is critical, and Jim Croghan has filled that bill very nicely for the past three years. Dickman and Peithman were familiar with him as a performer with the Davis Comic Opera Company, and he also had worked with Sebastian as an accompanist.

'He's a genius, and the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet,' she said.

'It's a blessing to have a person who is a singer and also a pianist, because he understand what a singer needs,' Peithman said. 'He's also very helpful if someone needs the song changed to a different key. That's something Dick Brunelle did beautifully.'

Brunelle was the first accompanist, and he continued for many years, until his health began to decline. Bowen remembers those years fondly.

'Some of my greatest Citizens Who Care memories are of Dick pounding the beat sitting at the piano, hunched over, doing his thing, and if we blew something it wouldn't faze him at all. He'd just 'noodle along' until we caught up. He was brilliant: He could stay with you and bring you back around, yet he was so self-effacing and unassuming. So talented.'


With the songs chosen and assigned to performers, and Croghan hard at work getting them ready for the performance, only Peithman's narration remains to be worked out. Even the singers don't know what he's going to say until the first performance.

They prefer to be surprised along with the audience.

'I have a wonderful story to tell in this show,' Peithman teased, 'and I won't tell it now. It has taken me a long time to figure out how to tell it. I finally decided I have to tell the story after a particular song is performed, because it almost would get in the way.

'Some stories should not be told; they're just too personal and too gross. Others, like in this case, are really good, but you have to tell them after the relevant song is performed, and then people will say, 'I don't believe that!'

'You don't want to alter their perception of the song in a negative way, especially if you know the performer will sing it one way, and the story is about a whole different aspect of the song, which would alter it.'

'It's always a chance to share some great American music and learn new songs,' Bowen summed up. 'Steve is a wonderful teacher, in the sense of the anecdotes and how these songs came about. I just enjoy the chance to perform music that people don't hear any more, and to see friends I rarely see throughout the year.'

'It's the highlight of the year for all of us,' Sebastian agreed. 'Citizens Who Care is a great organization, and this concert raises a bunch of money.'

'And raising money for the frail elderly is a worthy cause,' Bowen added.

'We'll all get there soon enough!'

The Winter's Tale

Monarchs and Gypsies and bears ... oh my!

'The Winter's Tale,' continuing through Sunday at the Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre, is a less familiar Shakespeare work. But this production, under the deft hand of director Patricia Miller, makes one wonder why it isn't done more often.

I hadn't seen the play before, and therefore had none of the expectations that might have accompanied another production of, say, 'Hamlet' or 'Macbeth.' This was, as a result, a delightful voyage of discovery. The journey starts with a visual bang and continues until the final beautifully lit, tender reunion of the king and his long dead wife.

Jorge Luis Morejon makes an immediate impact as 'Time,' aided greatly by Wenting Gao's striking costume, as this mystical character sets the scene for the story.

'The Winter's Tale' concerns King Leontes (Brett Duggan) of Sicilia, who becomes irrationally jealous of the innocent affection between his wife, Hermione (Allison Minick), and his best friend, Polixenes (Kevin Ganger), the king of Bohemia. We never quite figure out what has caused this seemingly sudden jealousy, but Leontes is convinced that the child Hermione carries was conceived by Polixenes.

Duggan gives a powerful, polished performance as a man who has tyrannical rages against his wife and her friend, Paulina (Amy Louise Cole), who attempts to reason with him. His anguish over Hermione's perceived betrayal is palpable; his tirades are frightening. His anguish - 16 years later, when he eventually realizes that no betrayal took place - is just as wrenching, as he finally comprehends how he has ruined his own life.

Minick gives a moving performance as Hermione, at first perplexed at her husband's accusations of infidelity, then pleading for reason from this man she so clearly loves. Her magical return - years later, in the form of a statue come to life - is strikingly beautiful.

When Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, her best friend Paulina brings the child to the king, certain that the sight of her will soften his heart.

Amy Cole gives an impassioned performance as Paulina, the catalyst for all the magic that happens throughout the play. Her scene with Leontes, as she tries to make him accept his daughter, is particularly moving.

Kris Ide is endearing as Antigonus, Paulina's husband, a conflicted lord who is unwaveringly loyal to his king, but also unable to stand up to his wife. Antigonus is dispatched by Leontes to 'dispose of' the child.

Christina Moore is wonderful as Mamillius, the young son of Leontes and Hermione. Moore is so convincing as a young boy that I had to check her bio, to verify she truly is an adult actress.

In a gender reversal, Steph Hankinson plays Camila - Camilo, a male role, in the original - who is sent by Leontes to murder Polixenes, but instead warns the king and flees the kingdom with him.

The action in Act 2 takes place 16 years later, in Bohemia, where the young princess Perdita (Gia Battista) has grown up, having been adopted by a shepherd (Heidi Kendrick) who found the abandoned infant. Perdita is in love with Florizel (Chris Jee), the son of Polixenes.

Kendrick does a credible job as the old shepherd, but never quite loses the appearance of a woman pretending to be a man. The shepherd and his son, Clown (Mark Curtis Ferrando), bring a bit of humor to the play, although some of their dialogue is difficult to understand.

Daniel A. Guttenberg is larger than life as the rogue Autolycus, who travels the country selling his wares and picking pockets. He, too, lightens the play's mood, and does it well.

Instead of choosing a more traditional Elizabethan sound for this production's music, Miller worked with composer Daryl Henline on original themes with a Balkan sound. The result could not be more perfect for the gypsy celebration.

Josh Steadman does a beautiful job with the scenic design, creating two entirely different worlds: a posh 1930s look for Leontes' court, and the more rustic Balkan community of Bohemia.

Gao's costumes are elegant for Act 1, and they beautifully depict the life of shepherds and gypsies in Act 2.

Jacob W. Nelson's lighting design creates the appropriate mood and is particularly good in the statue scene, where the 'statue' of Hermione seems to glow.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

'To me, the theme of the play is time, and learning lessons from time,' said director Patricia Miller, of her upcoming production of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale.'

The play opens Friday and continues through Feb. 22 at the UC Davis Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets...

This rarely performed Shakespeare work explores two parallel worlds: the elegance of a café society destroyed by a paranoid king's jealousy, and the fertile chaos of a Balkan Romani gypsy community. 'The Winter's Tale' has the emotional depth of 'King Lear' - often considered its inspiration - and the raw comedy of the rude mechanicals in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' It weaves a magical transformation from death to life.

'There's a redemption of family at the end,' Miller added, 'and a way that time heals things that's very mature.'

Time is not only at the core of this work, but also an integral aspect of the people involved in the production.

Miller is juggling several balls herself. She's a master of fine arts student, taking doctorate classes, teaching acting classes and directing a five-act play ... all at the same time. She's also a single parent with a 7-year-old daughter, which necessitates her commuting to and from San Francisco as often as possible.

Cuban-American actor Jorge Morejon, who plays the role of 'Time' in this production, is a doctoral candidate in his second year at UC Davis.

'I have to find a balance between the demands of my program,' he said, 'which is lots of reading and writing, and being involved in stage work, which is what I love. Patricia was kind enough to let me do the role of Time, which is small enough for me to maintain my work as a Ph.D. student, but still allows me to be on stage, which is important for me.'

Brett Duggan, tackling the role of King Leontes, is a professional actor and stand-up comedian who has played all the big comedy clubs in New York, Boston and San Francisco. He's a master of fine arts student who came to UC Davis because he'd be able to study and teach ... but all this also requires considerable juggling of time.

'I lived in Sacramento for a few years, and originally thought I would commute,' Duggan said, 'but just decided it was too intense, having had the experience of rehearsing until 11 p.m. I teach a class here at 8 a.m., so that wasn't going to work. I completely changed my life: I moved two blocks from campus.

'I got rid of my car and ride around on a bike.'


'The kids work so hard,' Miller said. 'They work much harder than regular actors. The two MFAs are up teaching at 8 a.m., and the others are taking classes. Sometimes a full complement all day long, and they come in to me at 6 p.m.

'But (Polish director Jerzy) Grotowski used to make people run around for days without sleep, before they were allowed to work, so grad school is like a similar program. We're just doing Grotowski. That's what I keep telling myself.'

'But we love this,' Morejon added. 'This is the time to do it, if you think about it. We have energy, and we're full of dreams, enthusiasm, optimism and love.'

This is an ideal cast for Miller, who directed last season's 'Nights at the Circus.' All the actors from that play - those who didn't graduate last year - auditioned for 'The Winter's Tale.'

'It's been a dream to have one consistent ensemble of people to work with,' Miller said, 'because they sort of understand my methods ... which are a little unusual.'

Queried about that choice of words, she explained that she's interested in physical theater, as much as text.

'I have long roots, and training in Britain in text-based theater, where you just start with the text and then work out some psychological reason behind that. You have to get involved in the language. My second level of experience was to work in physical theater modes; I try to incorporate a lot of gesture work, and a lot of energetic work with the actors.

'At the same time, we have to maintain the fact that there is this great text, and the audience expects to understand the story through the text.'

Amy Cole, playing Paulina, understands Miller's methods quite well. They met in San Francisco several years ago, at a Marie Overlie workshop. Overlie developed 'The Viewpoint System,' which teaches an awareness of space and how best to utilize it in performance.

Cole enjoys this opportunity to perform The Bard. Although she directs scaled-down productions of Shakespeare for children in the summer, and has utilized Shakespearean scenes for her own auditions, this is her first full Shakespeare production in more than 10 years.

And Paulina is a plum role.

'She's a catalyst for all the miracles and magic that happen at the end of the play, and throughout the play; the part is amazing. I love exploring Paulina, and I love the magic that happens in this particular Shakespeare play.'

It's a whole new world for Mark Curtis Ferrando, who plays 'Clown.'

'I haven't done Shakespeare before, so it's a totally new experience. Since Shakespeare is new to me, taking it line by line - punctuation mark by punctuation mark - is different.

'But it's a good experience.'


Miller is excited to be directing 'The Winter's Tale,' because she expects audiences to arrive at the theater with no preconceived expectations, as they might with 'Hamlet,' 'Macbeth' or other better-known works. 'The Winter's Tale' was one of Shakespeare's later plays, and - as with other late plays such as 'The Tempest' and 'Pericles' - this one also involves a father's loss of a daughter, and trying to regain that relationship.

'The play really parallels Shakespeare's own experience,' Miller said, 'because he lost a child; he returned for his older daughter's wedding. He was very alienated from the family, because he was down in London working at the Globe and other places. Some theories, picked up from the English department, suggest that it's really him working out redemption, rebirth and reconnection with family.'

Miller borrows liberally from her own life experiences. She was born in Philadelphia and raised in England, where she received her training; she also spent a lot of time in the former Yugoslavia. She has had teachers in Poland and Croatia, along with American Stanislavski technique teachers.

She spent a lot of time with Balkan musicians and worked with the Voice of Roma, a Sebastopol organization devoted to increasing knowledge of gypsy culture.

'I'm very involved in the lineage of the teachers who have taught me. You bring them all into the room with you.'

Her diverse experience leaves her eminently qualified to create the two worlds that she envisions for this production: the court of Leontes, modeled after the British monarchy in the 1930s, around the time of the abdication of Edward; and 1950s Bohemia, in a Balkan gypsy community that is quite colorful and musical.

Miller was very specific about the music she wanted.

'Often, with music in a Shakespearean production, people just go to the Elizabethan, which is beautiful. I love Elizabethan music, but the audience just has a quiet little sleep, because people expect to see Morris dancers.'

She therefore went in a completely different direction: San Francisco musician Daryl Henline is composing the original music for this play.

'He's the only 'outsider' being dropped into this production,' Miller said.

A Balkan gypsy celebration demands music with a lot of polyrhythm, but the instrumentation will be fairly minimal; the people in the cast who are musicians are more in the genre of classical pianists, and things like that.

'We're trying to incorporate people learning the accordion. We're obviously using percussion from the set, so it might be a clicking of sticks, as opposed to an actual instrument. And a skin drum, of course; you must have a skin drum. And a lot of polyphonic singing, some of which is indicated in the text, and some of which I've added for the community celebration.'


Miller's cast obviously likes working with her.

'She's fun. She's a hoot,' Ferrando laughed. 'She can be a little crazy sometimes, but in a good way, usually, for the actors.' He finds himself doing a lot of research for arcane references. 'They're references she grew up with, but I never noticed. I never was attuned to Laurel and Hardy, for example. I'm too young for that, so I have to go back and look at those videos.'

'She has tons of ideas,' Duggan said. 'It's exciting; it's a lot of fun; it's challenging. Yes, there will be a point where it'll feel like 'Oh my God, what's going on!' ... but the final product always is really strong.'

As I watched Miller direct her cast in an intense scene between Paulina and Leontes, it was almost like observing a conductor working with an orchestra. She approaches the text almost as if it were a musical number, tapping out the beat on a table as the actors speak.

I asked Cole about that.

'There's a lot about the timing in Shakespeare,' she said, 'because it's verse, and how the lines connect up. That scene, in particular, has a lot of lines in iambic pentameter: I'll finish, and Leontes completes the rest of my line, and I'll do the same for him. So it really is important; it's written that way. I cut him off as soon as he speaks, which adds tension.

'It's a constant churning, so you don't want to let it drop. That's the case in most plays, but especially in Shakespeare, because of how he wrote the verse. This is one of his later plays, so the verse is very complicated. He's deliberate with everything.'

While Miller is conscious of the Shakespeare fans, she's more interested in winning over the 'green' audience: playing to the guy in the third row, who is busy texting his girlfriend.

'It's actually this huge gift, as a director, to read reviews from the unspoiled fresh eyes of a 19-year-old undergraduate, who's forced to do it because he thought it would be the easy option ... because he didn't get in the English class, and doesn't like writing. I love winning over the scientists; it keeps me on my toes.

'It's all about this audience.'

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Gem of the Ocean

Peggy Shannon, artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company, has long had a dream.

She has dreamed of giving Sacramento-area patrons the chance to experience playwright August Wilson's groundbreaking 10-play series, 'The Pittsburgh Cycle,' which chronicles the tragedies and aspirations of African-Americans, decade by decade, through the 20th century.

Shannon finally is seeing her dream come to life: STC has made a commitment to produce the plays, one each year, beginning with 'Gem of the Ocean.' Although this work was written near the end of Wilson's life, it chronologically marks the beginning of the series; 'Gem of the Ocean' is set in 1904, against the legacy of emancipation.

Director Darryl V. Jones' powerful production features stellar performances by everybody in the seven- member cast.

Slavery looms large in this work. Each of the characters has either come up from slavery or is experiencing some sort of personal bondage that must be dealt with, whether physically or spiritually. The lessons learned during the course of the play will set each character on a path of freedom, in one direction or another.

Aunt Ester Tyler (Lisa Lacy), said to be 285 years old, is the 'griot' of the piece: the keeper of the oral history. The play is set at her home at 1839 Wylie Ave. - significant because 1839 was the year of the slave revolt on the Cuban schooner Amistad - a house of peace where it's said that she has the power to 'wash souls.'

Lacy gives a memorable performance, as she brings Ester's strength and heart to the stage. The actress does her best work in Act 2, and her anguish at a tragic moment is heartbreaking.

This home becomes a refuge for Citizen Barlow (Hosea L. Simmons), a tormented man desperate for Aunt Ester's assistance in starting a new life.

Citizen Barlow has left the oppressive racism of Alabama, but can find no peace in his new home because of guilt over his role in the suicide of a fellow worker.

Barlow's spiritual journey to the 'City of Bones' at the 'center of the world' - built from the bones of slaves who did not survive the journey from Africa to the new world - is key to this play; it puts him in the position of embracing the opportunity to set out on a new life when it comes along, in order to find his true destiny.

Simmons likewise gives a powerful performance, particular during his transformation, as he comes to term with his past life and takes up the mantle of responsibility for the future.

Eli (James Wheatley), Aunt Ester's caretaker, takes seriously his responsibility to maintain the house as 'peaceable.' In the days of slavery, Eli helped many slaves to freedom.

He's now busily constructing a stone wall to keep the house safe.

Solly Two Kings (Donald Lacy), who in many ways seems the heart of this play, is an ex-slave who worked with Eli on the Underground Railroad. Solly now makes a living gathering 'pure' (dog droppings), to be used for manure. His walking stick always is with him; it bears the notches carved for each slave he safely guided to freedom in Canada.

Solly and Aunt Ester obviously have deep feelings for one another.

Black Mary (C. Kelly Wright), who works as a housekeeper for Aunt Ester, undergoes her own personal transformation during the trip to the 'City of Bones.'

Mary's brother, Caesar Wilkes (Hansford Prince), is the villain of the piece: He attempts to uphold the white man's law, no matter how adversely it affects those around him.

Matt K. Miller plays Rutherford Selig, a Jewish peddler and an essential character: regarded with suspicion by some, but invaluable for passing along messages and warnings to the family.

'Gem of the Ocean' is an auspicious beginning for the 10-year cycle of Wilson plays. It's a powerful work - and a deeply moving local production - that will bring a face to African American history.