Leslie Uggams (foreground) and Yaya DaCosta
in The First Breeze of Summer
(© Richard Termine)
Leslie Uggams (foreground) and Yaya DaCosta
in The First Breeze of Summer
(© Richard Termine)
How clever of the Signature Theatre Company to begin this year's tribute to the Negro Ensemble Company with Leslie Lee's vital 1975 drama The First Breeze of Summer, a play that flaunts such exquisite ensemble performances. And lucky for theatergoers who already have tickets, since this rare combination of top-of-their-form players and an invigorating not-quite-dysfunctional family play -- realized through director Ruben Santiago-Hudson's masterful alchemy -- should make for a sold-out run.

While intermittently flawed by inconsistencies of tone, Lee's touching work is two kinds of a memory play. First, it's the playwright's fictionalized version of himself as Lou Edwards (Jason Dirden), growing up in a middle-class home where his paternal grandmother (Leslie Uggams), is his favorite resident. Second, it's Gremmer (as she's called) recollecting her younger life when she was simply Lucretia (Yaya DaCosta) and involved with three men in affairs cut short by unfortunate circumstances.

Lee's action unfolds over a couple days in the immaculate Edwards residence where the major wrinkle in the family's seemingly typical events is the chest pains Gremmer is experiencing. At the same time, she's diverted from the family activities by the visions of her heart-breaking earlier romances with Sam Green (Gilbert Owuor), the wronged man who fathered the first of her three out-of-wedlock children; Briton Woodward (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the adopted Roanoke white boy who fathered the second; and Harper Edwards (John Earl Jelks), the mine worker and almost preacher, who fathered the third.

Meanwhile, Lou and brother Nate (Brandon Dirden) clash with dad Milton (Keith Randolph Smith) over their futures in or out of the family plastering business, while Mom Hattie (Marva Hicks) tries to keep the clan calm. Other characters who come in and out of the Edwards' home include Gremmer's daughter Edna (Brenda Pessley), Nate's fiancee Hope (Crystal Anne Dickinson), the Bible-spouting Reverend Mosely (Harvy Blanks), who presides over one of the play's boisterous sequences when he conducts a testifying session that has the entire Edwards clan shouting and singing their Jesus-loving praises, the wife of a man Milton fired (Sandra Daley), and a bargain-hunting plastering customer (Tuck Milligan).

Santiago-Hudson maximizes the work's biggest and smallest moments, many of them taken up with demonstrating what a sweltering summer Pennsylvania is experiencing. Among the strongest sequences are a Lucretia-Harper courtship scene that has all the charm of George wooing Emily in Our Town, and a late-in-the-second-act section where Gremmer's condition worsens and the seeming ignominies of the good woman's past are spilled to Lou, who has long been kept in the dark about the family's history.

As to the cast, there's no first among equals here, although older patrons may take time reconciling themselves to ever-youthful Uggams doing such a touching job as a failing matriarch. From minute to minute, though, whoever of the vaunted ensemble takes focus is the one who owns the play.