every tongue confess
Phylicia Rashad gives a stand-out performance as a spiritual healer in Arena Stage's premiere of Marcus Gardley's challenging new play.
Using an actual series of church burnings in 1996 as his starting point, Gardley burrows deep into magic realism to create a parable about finding good in evil circumstances. While there's both humor and intense passion in Gardley's mythic story, the play ultimately seems like an unfinished work. Fortunately, director Kenny Leon stages the play with a helpful straightforwardness, while his actors -- led by Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad -- speak in tones of heightened consciousness, yet avoid melodrama.
As three worshippers (E. Roger Mitchell, Eugene Lee, Crystal Fox) improbably huddle inside a burning church, a trio of interconnected stories roll out. A white woman named Bernadette (Leslie Kritzer) is shot, forcing her daughter Benny (Autumn Hurlbert) to move in with her redneck father, Stoker (Jim Ireland), a spiritually wounded man with a festering secret. Mother Sister (Rashad), a grace-filled preacher and spiritual healer, and her good-natured but restless son Shadrack (Jason Dirden) contend with a mystical visitor maned Blacksmith (Jonathan Peck). We also meet Jeremiah (Lee), a gravedigger who unearths a singing Bible.
Gardley weaves in and out of these tales in nonlinear fashion, as reality and myth flow into each other. Solidly straddling both planes are Rashad and Dirden, who create a relationship that transcends the limitations of Gardley's underwritten characters. Rashad combines a motherly intensity with an ethereal serenity -- a marvelous mixture that provides emotional heat and laughter almost simultaneously. Moreover, in a play full of Biblical allegory and mysticism, Rashad's work stands out as particularly hypnotic as her preacher comes to understand that God has sent her a rare gift.
Tom Lynch's stark set shows off the Cradle's rounded, basket-weave walls to good effect, with a minimum of set pieces and just the suggestion of flickering scarlet from Allen Lee Hughes' lighting to evoke heat and flame. But it's the actors who provide the real hot stuff here.