The Refuge Plays is certainly epic in ambition. Nathan Alan Davis’s trilogy of interconnected plays, making its world premiere in a co-production of Roundabout Theatre Company and New York Theatre Workshop, is a decades-spanning family saga that dares to take its time to explore its characters and themes. Artists as talented as Davis surely deserve opportunities to swing for the fences when the muse inspires them. Whether there is enough substance here to justify its extensive length is more questionable.
One character ties all three parts together: Early (Nicole Ari Parker), the matriarch of the extended family that Davis traces backwards from the present day to its beginnings in the 1950s. Thus, in the first play, we’re confronted with Early in her old age while living with her daughter-in-law Gail (Jessica Frances Dukes), Gail’s daughter Joy (Ngozi Anyanwu), and Joy’s son Ha-Ha (JJ Wynder-Wilkins). There is a fifth major character: the ghost of Walking Man (Jon Michael Hill), Gail’s late husband and Early’s son, who warns them that Gail’s own time on earth is soon approaching its end.
Ghosts also appear in the ’70s-set second play: those of Reginald (Jerome Preston Bates) and Clydette (Lizan Mitchell), Early’s mother and father, who have messages to impart to both a younger Walking Man, seen living with Early and her husband Crazy Eddie (Daniel J. Watts); and Eddie’s brother Dax (Lance Coadie Williams), visiting the family before he flies to Paris. It is in this play that we eventually see how Walking Man met Gail. But it is in the third play that we see how Early and Crazy Eddie first fell in love, after Eddie, just back from the Korean War, finds Early living out in the woods with the infant that will grow up to be Walking Man.
All of this takes place in basically the same patch of rural southern Illinois woods in which Early and Crazy Eddie establish the residence that will house their family’s ensuing generations (as a result, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design requires relatively discreet changes between acts). But the “refuge” this trilogy explores isn’t just physical, it’s also emotional, philosophical, and spiritual. In the first play, the ghost of Walking Man encourages Ha-Ha to find a girl to settle down with and potentially keep the family going, which is how Symphony (Mallori Taylor Johnson) enters the picture. Similarly, Gail enters Walking Man’s life during a moment when the latter contemplates violence against another, thus acting as a civilizing influence. All three plays feature characters offering prayers as protection from the ills of the wider world.
Davis tackles these large ideas amid a magical-realist, allegorical backdrop, as evidenced not only in the presence of ghosts, but also blatantly in the names he gives these characters. Such heavy-handedness points to the one overarching limitation of The Refuge Plays. August Wilson may have aimed for a similar thematic and stylistic expansiveness in plays like The Piano Lesson, but one could also respond to his characters as flesh-and-blood individuals. Davis’s more two-dimensional characters, by contrast, exist mostly as emblems for his broader themes. Though we learn more details about these characters’ lives, we don’t really learn more about them as people over the span of the trilogy’s three-and-a-half-hour length.
That’s not to say that these characters aren’t pleasant company. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of The Refuge Plays is its hearty sense of humor, with moments sprinkled throughout that feel like extended vaudeville sketches. And Davis’s baldly allegorical approach yields occasional moments of genuine lyricism and wisdom. It’s Symphony who utters the most memorable line of the entire evening, when she wonders aloud towards the end of the first play, “Could we all use a second childhood?”
Patricia McGregor’s direction mostly keeps the material in the naturalistic realm — possibly too cautious an approach given Davis’s gestures toward the folksy and surreal. Only Marc Anthony Thompson’s sound design, featuring music by Thompson and vocal soundscapes by Imani Uzuri, suggests a world beyond what’s represented onstage.
Still, the realistic approach does allow the sizable cast to develop a genuine familial rapport with each other. Parker is the standout, convincing both in Early’s ornery old age and her frightened yet headstrong younger self. But Watts is charismatic as Crazy Eddie; Wynder-Wilkins and Johnson exude innocence as their teenaged characters, as does Hill as the younger Walking Man; and Dukes has an especially memorable moment when Gail has a sudden moment of reflective clarity upon finally accepting her impending fate. This top-flight cast is strong enough to occasionally distract you from the cumulative impression of witnessing an epic that is a mile wide but only an inch deep.