ST. PETERSBURG — Harsh melodrama can supply the purest form of escape. Diving deeper into human conflict rather than running the other way taps audiences into an alternate reality. If done well, it's the very lack of contrast with the outside world that delivers the deepest rewards.
Pipeline, by the brilliant Dominique Morisseau, is that kind of play, and this American Stage production directed by L. Peter Callender is that kind of experience. It narrates problems of race, class, age, marriage, parenting, crime and more with nuance and no simple answers, except this one: There is no force stronger than a mother's love
Morisseau, an actor who started writing plays to remedy the paucity of roles for African Americans, writes in tight scenes, each with a clear purpose. Callender, who directed Jitney and A Raisin in the Sun at American Stage, has a knack for distilling that purpose and getting actors to evoke it.
The title reflects a "pre-school-to-prison pipeline" in schools, but it's not all about money. Morrisseau dedicated the play to her mother, a public school teacher. The intimacy of that connection pays off not only in the character of Nya, who teaches high school English, but in the wealth of details that justify her panic attacks.
The set and lighting reflect a gray institutional world not unlike a prison, the brightest colors sparkling on the sneakers of a teenage girl. It's a stress factory for the employees who kibitz in a break room, making small talk about carjackings and fighting, corruption and neglect.
"Half these kids are suffering from mental illness," says Laurie, Nya's foul-mouthed colleague, delightfully played by Cynthia Beckert. "A classroom can't fix that s---."
To spare her son Omari from that environment, Nya and ex-husband Xavier (Aaron Morton), a marketing executive, have sent him to a private school. Affluent is not necessarily better, and the only people who seem to realize that are the students. As the girlfriend Omari met in science class put it, "I cannot keep myself in this wasteland of talent." Kiara Hines delivers some of the show's best lines with a lot of panache.
Other characters all have their crosses to bear — security guard Dun (Cranstan Cumberbatch) with his desire to continue an affair with Nya, Xavier with resentment over the affair and his own workaholism, and Omari (Andrew Montgomery Coleman) with anger at his father's estrangement.
But the core of the show and much of its power comes from Gillian Glasco's performance as Nya, who is trying to keep order amid unrelenting crisis. It's a risk, narrating that kind of stress by forcing the audience to experience it in unbroken form. Glasco has the range needed to carry that off. Her secret is that Nya doesn't give up and so neither do we.
Lighting and scenic design weave in elements of poetry that create an alternate world, one that targets Omari. Coleman plays the character with sensitivity, a double-edged sword in that his ability to pick up cues led him to assault a private school teacher, manifesting the most obvious crisis.
I believed the sensitivity more than the rage, although a powerful near fistfight scene comes close to bringing out the latter. But any such blips or questions in this show are minor; any moments that seem to lose a bit of focus are quickly dialed back into focus.
The show establishes a target that is profoundly about something, then hits that target again and again. That's why Pipeline is well worth your time.
IF YOU GO
Runs through Feb. 24 at Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. $44 and up. (727) 823-7529. For show times, go to americanstage.org.