By Diana Saenger
It takes an especially talented cast to deliver the words and emotions August Wilson layered into his 10 plays, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” which offers a microscopic view of American life and the real heart of mankind. The eight-member cast of Cygnet Theatre’s “Gem of the Ocean,” the first play in the series, vividly embodied Wilson’s characters with heart and power in the opening night performance.
The theme of the series is the African-American experience, and “Gem of the Ocean” takes on slavery, the effects of it, and the price of living and dying.
Andrew Hull’s terrific set design of Aunt Esther’s humble abode instantly takes the audience back to 1904. The way Aunt Esther commands her staff, orders her friends around and spends most of her day in her room, would earn her the label “pampered queen,” but Esther is really a spiritual leader who offers asylum and redemption to those who need it.
Brenda Phillips plays Aunt Esther with masterful ease. She has a tender manner when helping those she feels are in need, yet applies the strong tone needed to instruct her houseman Eli (Grandison M. Plelps III) and her cook and housemaid Black Mary (Melva Graham). Black Mary has a transformative arc that nicely unfolds through Graham’s performance, yet among all of Wilson’s characters with strange names, I can’t help but wonder why he chose Black Mary as a character name.
Maybe it was his intention to remind the audience that the play portrays the struggles between the slaves and those who are free, and that freedom is never free. Even though Eli constantly reminds anyone who dares to enter that this “is a peaceful house,” at times, Aunt Esther’s is anything but docile.
The first intrusion into Esther’s peaceful home is by Citizen Barlow (Laurence Brown). He’s just made his way from Alabama to Esther’s place in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Citizen harbors deep sorrow over something he did and heard Esther is a cleanser of souls. Eli makes him wait several days before he can see Esther, but a quick sneak through a window for something to eat softens Esther’s heart, and she listens to his story.
Brown is superb as he portrays an anxiety-ridden man scared it may be too late to save his life; a young, lonely man longing to feel the warmth of a young girl like Black Mary, and a brave man of dignity ready to stand up and help another find his way.
That man would be Solly Two Kings (Antonio “TJ” Johnson). He’s a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor accused of a crime by Black Mary’s police officer brother, Caesar. Solly knows he must escape. Citizen agrees to accompany him, but soon returns to complete his own assignment of redemption. That involves a spiritual journey commanded by Esther to the “City of Bones.”
There’s a lot going on in “Gem of the Ocean,” but I’m not sure the production needed to run over two hours long. That said, guest director Victor Mack gives a fine showing here of commanding a talented cast and telling Wilson’s story in a way, I assume, Wilson would be proud.
If you go
What: ‘Gem of the Ocean’
When: Matinees, evenings to Feb. 24
Where: Cygnet Theatre Company, Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego
Box Office: (619) 337-1525