My self-titled "Year of Living Theatrically" is coming to a close. After today's adventure, I have 2 more shows to see. Today I went to see my first August Wilson play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom". It's one of the Pittsburgh Cycle of plays that defined Wilson's career. In chronology it's the third member of the cycle, but it was the first one he wrote and the only one not set in Pittsburgh. It is the story of a single recording session of the "Mother of the Blues," Madame "Ma" Rainey in Chicago in the mid-1920's. The bulk of the plot is carried by her ensemble of musicians, but Ma also has a consequential role in the arc of the story-telling.
The theater company was new to me. 1st Stage Theatre is located in McLean, Virginia near to the Tyson's Corner shopping/office/high rise hub, but it's decidedly unremarkable. The actual theater is found on the second level of an industrial strip mall made up mostly of various auto repair and body shops. Once inside the operation is ticketless--I made my purchase online and they had my name on a printout to verify my attendance. The actual theater space is intimate, and surprisingly adequate. The set was beautiful! It gave actors multiple platforms from which to inhabit the various scenes, and it maximized the sense of space.
As to the production, there's an old adage about how even gnats can befoul a jar of perfume. So let me both begin with the gnats but preface them by saying it was a decent production, and I will speak of the positives, too. To begin with, the play itself was completely new to me. Therefore, I relied on the actors to bring its mean to the surface, but finding the path of the plot was often muddled and lost in the moments. It would be like have each individual player know well their lines and when to deliver them, but not comprehending a higher level of meaning when the power of the ensemble kicks in and one person's dialogue becomes the compelling catalyst to the next person's dialogue. About half of the cast failed to transition from competent line-readers to characters speaking real words in real time. Most disappointing in this regard was Thomascena Nelson in the title role. As Ma Rainey, she had a lot of really important stuff to say, but never convinced me that in saying these things the fact that there were other characters in the room with her matter at all. She delivered the lines with great accuracy and even feeling, yet; who was she delivering them to? Another easily rectified short-coming would have been to have taught Tendo Nsubuga in the role of Ma's nephew how to actually stutter. It was kind of a key aspect to his character, an otherwise minor role. The fact that he was bad at it, made it feel like a high school production when it was his turn to speak. Even those actors who delivered powerful moments or consistent characterizations were not able to rescue the overall sense of lethargy.
Who did I like? I liked most of all William T. Newman as Cutler. He was consistent in his portrayal of the ensemble's old-guard leader. He play off of and with other's and dog gone it he was just believable and likeable start to finish. I liked Joe Palka as Ma's agent Irvin. (Full Disclosure: I know Joe in a very casual way--over 15 years ago I was one of his daughter's teachers. We surely spoke on a couple occasions back then, but I honestly doubt that he would remember me. I recall at that time knowing that dabble in acting, while his wife--the Emmy Award winning Weather Woman--was the real "star" of the family.) Joe channeled to great effect the Meredith Burgess character from the "Rocky" films to present a milder everyman caught between competing interests and doing his damndest to make nice-nice. I like Michael Anthony Williams as the piano player "Toledo". Michael not only created an affecting counter-character (the black intellectual writ-small), but did so without being smarmy. And he was a consistent source of comic interjection with his well-timed wordless reactions to others. And finally, I really liked Clayton Pelham, Jr.'s portrayal of Levee. However, I also found it lacking. He held in the palm of his hand the key soliloquies of the play. The first feeling like it came out of nowhere at the end of the first Act. An utter gut punch...and that's my complaint. How is the midst of such an abjectly dark spot upon his heart, was there no warning...no indication of such earlier in the show? The opportunity was there, and it was ignored. I sense in this man a profound desire to act at a superior level--it came out at times and rather than being profound, because there was no sufficient foundation, they were a little odd, a little off. No greater representation of this was than the final scene. What should have been a psychological tour de force of regret and realization was just confusing and half-baked. While many others stood at the end in ovation--this time, I remained seated. A good show deserves nothing more.