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Theatre in Review: Home (Roundabout Theatre Company/Todd Haimes Theatre)

Brittany Inge, Tory Kittles, Stori Ayers. Photo: Joan Marcus

Sometimes the glory of a tale is in the telling; so it is with Home, which, casting its beguiling spell, earned both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations in the 1980 -- 81 season. Forty years later, it retains its spell thanks to vividly rendered writing that stands up to the passage of the years. Indeed, you can call it timeless: The saga of Cephus Miles, a young North Carolina farmer for whom life has a bagful of surprises, not all of them pleasant, is filled with incidents so richly, often hilariously, described that each retains the indelible quality of a finely wrought woodcut.

Playwright Samm-Art Williams' felicity with words propels each new episode of the wandering life of Cephus, starting in the town of Cross Roads, known, among other things, for "mosquitoes as big as turkeys. Sound like airplanes when they land on you." It's a place where Mrs. Hattie Smith is the Sunday School teacher "and nobody seemed to mind that her husband, John, was the biggest bootlegger in the county." And where the feisty young Pearlene owns a pet rooster, Leroy, that beats the tar out of her hound dog Lester. "I never seen a dog so scared of a chicken in all my life," Cephus recalls. "If you called Lee Roy's name around Lester, that hound would faint."

Cephus, raised by his grandfather and uncle, is, in his early years, a bit of a hell-raiser, illicitly making booze, about which he notes, "Sometimes a possum or a racoon would fall over in the barrel while the whiskey was cooking but that just added to the taste." He often foregoes church for the regular Sunday morning craps game, held in the local graveyard. "Our crap shooting was done in the white folks' section because that's where all the nice cement vaults were," he notes. "We all had lucky vaults. My lucky vault belonged to Mr. Hezekiah Simmons. Born July 7, 1877, died July 7, 1957...I heard that he was a mean white man when he was living. But in death, Mr. Simmons was definitely my friend."

Employing language that consistently elevates everyday life to the level of a folk tale, Williams probably could keep us beguiled all night long with sketches of Cross Roads life. Instead, he sends Cephus on an odyssey that recalls the great migration of the early twentieth century. Dumped by his longtime girlfriend and drafted into the army, he refuses to go to war like his friends Joe-Boy and Tommy, Green Berets who come home in coffins. Jailed for his principled opposition, Cephus loses his family's farm to the tax man; on release, he drifts north to New York where, at first, the money and good times flow freely. But his conscientious objector status makes him unemployable; bankrupt and hollowed out by drugs and booze, he earns a few coins shining shoes. He ends up embodying this devastating description of a farmer who has lost his way in the city: "Pastel green shirt and a shoestring necktie. Hat cocked to one side. Black gabardine pants that are pegged at the ankles, with large pink stripes down the sides to accent his white knob-toed shoes. The ones with the sad, displaced faces."

No longer able to resist the siren call of Cross Roads, Cephus hops a Greyhound bus headed south. At first, he is shunned by old friends and neighbors who brand him a coward. But salvation awaits, thanks to a stunningly unexpected gesture from an apparent stranger (in reality, a ghost from the past). It's a fitting twist to a story that unfolds like a country ballad; Kenny Leon's production sidesteps the pitfalls of a narration-heavy script and a largely passive hero, turning us into cheerleaders for Cephas as struggles to get back on the straight and narrow. (The director also deftly skirts the script's occasional too-cute passages, including a running gag about God having hightailed it off to Miami, where he can't be reached.)

Most Roundabout productions come with the imprimatur of stars; in this case, a trio of Broadway newcomers take the stage with an assurance backed by their formidable technical skills. Without resorting to obvious tricks Tory Kittles takes Cephus from impetuous boy to weatherbeaten survivor - a wraith who, a too-candid acquaintance notes, looks twice his age. (Wait for the moment when a young man offers a handshake and Cephus tries to respond with his palsied right arm. It tells you everything about the damage he has suffered and his remaining thirst for life.) At all times, this is a vigorous performance: Kittles handles Williams' lengthy, prose-like digressions with gusto, leaving us hanging on every word. He has excellent companions in Brittany Inge as Pattie Mae, his true love, who announces, "I have outgrown you" and marries a lawyer, a decision she comes to regret, and Stori Ayers in any number of roles, including the gimlet-eyed Revered Doris ("He ain't a whole Christian yet," she grumbles, giving Cephus a skeptical once-over) and Myrna, Cephas' avaricious lover. ("Where there's no money. There can be no love. I think the Bible says that. Yeah. John three, sixteen.")

The production is gorgeously realized in Arnulfo Maldonado's set design, depicting a vast rural vista that morphs into an urban landscape; it is constantly transformed by the subtle color strategies of Allen Lee Hughes' lighting. Justin Ellington's sound design includes a lively preshow playlist featuring Nina Simone's take on "O-o-h Child" and "Optimistic" by Sounds of Blackness plus, in the play proper, an array of effects (subways, dogs, helicopters, prison lockdowns) and bits of music in gospel, jazz, and funk. Dede Ayite's denim-and-flannel costumes suit the character's back-country and urban-working-class milieus.

It's quite a yarn being spun on the stage of the Haimes Theatre these nights, a sorrowful tale of exile and return filled with vividly etched scenes from country and city life; so soul-satisfying is Home that one can't help regretting that Williams, who died recently, spent most of his career in television; his knack for theatricality and heightened language cannot have been all that useful on shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Still, thanks be to Roundabout for mounting a sterling production of a play that increasingly looks like a classic. At least, we'll always have Home.- David Barbour

(6 June 2024)

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