ST. PETERSBURG — The boarding house residents speak much more eloquently than most. But their quests and dreams and heartbreaks are universal.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson suspends this world of 1911 Pittsburgh in the air like soap bubble, its surface swimming with color before it is gone for good. This is the last of Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays at American Stage, each set in different decades of the 20th century. With this production, the theater becomes just one of 12 worldwide to have produced all 10.
The theater was nearly packed Sunday, unusual for a matinee crowd, and included fans who had attended multiple cycle plays since the series began a decade ago. For these regulars and for American Stage, getting here is akin to a quarter-mile stroll along a mountain ridge, a time to enjoy the view. This production of Joe Turner on opening weekend gives American Stage and local audiences a chance to celebrate what they have done together.
This installment is a tight world, packed with conflict from the opening moments. One of the tenants, a young black musician, has been thrown in jail. A taciturn visitor with a daughter says he's looking for his wife, not seen since before he was enslaved. The most regular tenant, Bynum, operates in a realm of spells and visions and helps others cope with their own.
These intersecting crises spiral through a week at the boarding house until the most important ones have been resolved. Hence Joe Turner ties up these story endings in conventional ways, even as the subject matter defies expectations. Herald Loomis, the mysterious visitor, seeks not just his missing wife but solace from spiritual visions shaking his soul.
Bynum, the tenant introduced in the first scene as the one who sacrifices pigeons in the back yard, also sees the inner life as more significant than what passes for reality for most others. He is the yin to Loomis' yang, and their turbulent interactions make up the heart of a play that holds fast to its truths in an uncompromising way.
Balancing that scale is Seth Holly, the boarding house owner, who watches his pennies and doesn't believe "all that heebie-jeebie stuff." Kim Sullivan as Seth drives this train forward, forcing every other character to account for the transactions they make, for money and services exchanged. His specificity embodies the richness and detail of the surroundings in a way that abstract visions cannot. That is why Sullivan, a veteran of all 10 cycle plays at American Stage, is so well cast here, cutting Seth's jagged ridges with a locksmith's precision.
Calvin Thompson navigates complex challenges as Herald, a former church deacon before he was captured and held for seven years by Joe Turner, whom we never see. "Your daddy's scary," the teenager Reuben (Tyrese Pope) says to Herald's daughter Zonia (Shelby Ronea), and he's partially right. Herald is sometimes almost scary, yet he's also warm and trying to do right by his daughter. Those are hard traits to juggle, but Thompson does as well as anyone could.
Other standout performances include Fanni Green as Bertha, Seth's assertive wife, and Richard Watson as Selig, the white entrepreneur who sells Seth sheet metal for the pots and dustpans Seth makes on the side.
Perhaps the largest challenge was that faced by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, who played Bynum. Abdul-Rashid delivered a powerhouse performance a year ago in Wilson's Jitney, so it was odd seeing an actor of his caliber reading from a script for more than half of the play.
It turns out he was a last-minute replacement by American Stage for an actor who wasn't working out, stepping in a week before the first curtain (something the theater didn't mention prior to Sunday's performance). In that context, Abdul-Rashid did yeoman's work. The entire production has much about it to recommend. Scenic designer Scott Cooper has outdone himself with a set that captures rough-hewn, early 20th century quarters, down to the brown spots on a strip of lawn outside where children play.
Director L. Peter Callender has pulled together a bouquet of moments to savor, too many of them to come from the actors alone. It might be a look, a turn of the head or Seth's hand wavering in his pocket as he contemplates throwing out a tenant or keeping the rent money. Together these moments and the artistry behind them create lots of reasons to see Joe Turner's Come and Gone, as well as the history made by the production itself. During an extended standing ovation, other cast members prompted Sullivan — one of a handful to have completed the cycle as actors — to take an additional bow, which he did with a broad smile.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.