Review: A Man’s Odyssey Begins While God’s on Vacation in Home

Kenny Leon directs a revival of the Tony-nominated play at the Todd Haimes Theatre.

Brittany Inge, Tory Kittles, and Stori Ayers in Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway production of Samm-Art Williams’s Home, directed by Kenny Leon, at the Todd Haimes Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

At the beginning of Home, a world-weary character named Cephus Miles sits in a rocking chair, hand twitching at his side, as two youngsters (played by adult actors Brittany Inge and Stori Ayers) taunt him for selling his soul to the devil. But Cephus (played by Tory Kittles) never did any such thing. He has always kept the faith, even when the love of his life ran off with another man, he lost his farm, and it seemed like God had gone off on vacation to Miami.

Samm-Art Williams’s moving and often very funny story about Cephus’s unwavering faith and his arduous journey from a rural town to the big city and back has appeared on New York stages now and then ever since the Negro Ensemble Company premiered it in 1979 (the play moved to Broadway the following year and was nominated for a Tony). It’s a regional favorite and has become something of a modern classic, so it’s no surprise that Roundabout selected it to inaugurate the new Broadway season at the Todd Haimes Theatre, a choice made more poignant by Williams’s passing last month.

Featuring three actors, Home has a mind-boggling number of characters who come into and out of Cephus’s life, starting in his youth on a farm in Cross Roads, North Carolina. There, he grows up loving the land and gambling away a little too much of his Sunday school money. But then his uncle and grandfather die, his sweetheart Pattie Mae (Inge) leaves him, and he does time in prison for holding fast to his principles when he’s drafted for the war in Vietnam. “No,” he says, “Thou shall not kill.” Misfortune follows Cephus on his odyssey after he serves his sentence and makes his way north to the big city where he meets the gold-digging Myrna (Ayers) and descends into a life a drugs, alcohol, and destitution before finding his way back to Cross Roads.

Stori Ayers, Tory Kittles, and Brittany Inge in Roundabout ’s new Broadway production of Samm-Art Williams’s Home.
(© Joan Marcus)

The story follows a familiar path of loss and redemption, without any especially surprising plot twists. You can fault the play for lacking interest in that respect and get no argument from me. What gives the play more substance are two things. First, it’s a showcase for three actors to stretch their talents to the absolute limits, particularly the two female roles. Inge and Ayers change their voices, facial expressions, and body movements with such agility — an elderly bus driver one minute, a young man the next — that there’s hardly ever a doubt who is who. Under Kenny Leon’s direction, all three turn out rare tour-de-force performances that alone make this production worthwhile.

Second, Williams is a master of evocative language, and his dialogue often has the feel of spoken-word poetry. Cephus weaves in colorful, funny tales about catching catfish (“Every Saturday we ‘pull the Seine’”) and calling in an IOU from a man who claims he can’t speak English until he’s threatened with a brick (“When I come back, there was my two dollars sitting on the bench”). Kittles delivers these downhome stories with relish as though he’s enjoyed telling them his whole life.

Tory Kittles, Brittany Inge, and Stori Ayers in Samm-Art Williams’s Home, directed by Kenny Leon.
(© Joan Marcus)

That may be part of the reason I felt that the intimacy of the play gets lost on a big Broadway stage when Home could just as easily be performed round a campfire. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set — rows of corn accompanied by projections of a country sky and an incongruous cityscape — seem almost unnecessary when Williams can conjure “mosquitoes as big as turkeys” in the mind’s eye. His rich imagery is all the scenery this play needs.

At least costume designer Dede Ayite has kept the apparel appropriately simple with denim-themed clothes for all the actors, allowing a scarf or hat to do what’s necessary to change from one character to the next. Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting aptly bathes the country scenes in sunshine and gives the city scenes a neon gloss, while sound designer Justin Ellington lets us hear the only sound in Cross Roads — a chorus of crickets.

Through it all, Cephus holds on to his faith, and God does eventually return from vacation bearing gifts. Williams’s ending is tidy, and perhaps too contrived. But ultimately it didn’t matter to me when I was unexpectedly moved to tears by two words: pecan pie. What says Home better than that?

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Closed: July 21, 2024