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Saint Lucy's Eyes

Willis Burks and Ruby Dee
in Saint Lucy's Eyes
Imagine a production of Hamlet that ended in uproarious laughter from the audience; a production in which the actors turn that most powerful of scripts into the cheapest melodrama. The Cherry Lane Theater's production of Bridgette A. Wimberly's Saint Lucy's Eyes presents the opposite situation: Despite the presence of an extremely gifted cast -- led by the celebrated Ruby Dee -- this script could not seem to draw a tear from the crowd. It did, however, prompt many an inappropriate giggle.

Saint Lucy's Eyes misses the mark, but not due to any innate lack of talent on Wimberly's part. She has a remarkable ability to create moving and realistic dialogue; it is her storytelling that requires fine-tuning. Saint Lucy's Eyes revolves around Grandma (Ruby Dee), who, in pre-Roe v. Wade Memphis, provides back-alley abortions to raise money for a nicer home. She also prides herself on giving young black women the opportunity to become "more than just a mother." Grandma's husband, Bay (Willis Burks II), discourages his wife's double life, afraid that she will be imprisoned.

It's an interesting premise, but the script soon takes a turn for the worse. Grandma, who had been hiding her line of work from Bay, reveals that she made $75 in one day, advancing the plot in an awkward piece of dialogue. Bay guesses the truth, and the two fight. Unfortunately, Wimberly ruins what might have been a gripping confrontation with a ridiculous deus ex machina: Rioting townspeople set fire to the family home because Martin Luther King has just been assassinated. On the evening I attended, the audience laughed out loud at this turn of events. Only when one character dies in the smoke from the fire does it become apparent that this curveball was not meant as a joke.

Twelve years later, Grandma finds herself tending to another patient (Sally A. Stewart) in the same hotel room where King was murdered. She meets again with her first patient under the most unlikely of circumstances. Think of the most implausible plot twist imaginable, then double it; you'll still be amazed by the amount of disbelief Wimberly asks us to suspend when the "Young Woman" (Toks Olagundoye) from the beginning of the play reappears at the end.

Wimberly miscalculates in the manner of many emerging playwrights: She overshoots. Set on an epic scale, her play intends to tackle such major issues as abortion, civil rights, religion, and race relations. Any one of these would have made for an interesting story, but the playwright seems overwhelmed by them all. And, although one can argue that King left an indelible mark on African-American life, the constant invocation of this icon seems contrived.

Shakespeare's five-act plays also contained random plot turns. In Twelfth Night, long-lost identical twins find each other after a shipwreck; A Midsummer Night's Dream's Oberon created new romances with a sprinkle of fairy dust. But Shakespeare wrote in poetry, and everyone understood that his plays were not strictly realistic. Wimberly's modern two-act, however, cannot avoid the same plausibility issues. Still, with Ruby Dee's face shining on the publicity photo, Saint Lucy's Eyes will draw crowds.

Perhaps due to Wimberly's fellowship at the esteemed Cherry Lane Theatre, the show boasts elaborate production values. Beowulf Boritt's design for Grandma's house has a rustic charm that is perhaps too beautiful for the characters' squalor, while Jane Reisman's lighting design includes Technicolor rain. (Note to Reisman: Multicolored precipitation may be pretty, but rain looks clear to most of us.)

Saint Lucy's Eyes proves that Wimberly is a promising playwright. When she doesn't try to astound us with surprises, her dialogue blisters with authenticity and her characters stir us with their humanity. How wonderful Saint Lucy's Eyes might have been if, instead of leading those characters through fantastic journeys, Wimberly had allowed them to develop more naturally.

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