Wine in the Wilderness at ACT Theatre
Also see David's reviews of The Last Sunday in June and Our Mighty Men
Set in 1964 Harlem in the aftermath of a race riot, Wine explores the differences within the African American community with honesty, if little urgency, as a suburbs-raised, self-impressed artist named Bill is embarking on the last of his triptych of paintings. His friends Cynthia and Sonny-Man bring him a model for this portrait of the degraded African American female, the other two portraits being a winsome child and a veritable African goddess who is the titular image of wine in the wilderness. His subject Tommy (short for Tomorrow) is street smart and sassy, yet kind and vulnerable. She honors a salty older neighborhood denizen known only as Oldtimer by getting him to tell his given name, and insists on addressing him with it. Left alone, the honest and direct Tommy and the pompous, civil rights spouting Bill, find a deeper connection emotionally and physically, before paint touches the canvas. The next morning Oldtimer innocently reveals to Tommy what she is to model for, and she confronts Bill and the others with her earnest indignation. The play culminates in the justly humbled Bill painting an altogether different work than he first had in mind.
Director Valerie Curtis-Newton paces the 75-minute, intermissionless play almost too breathlessly for Childressí words to have the impact they should. Her casting is a mixed bag, but the glory of the production is, as it should be, April Yvette Thompsonís warm, spunky and wise performance as the unpretentious Tommy. Unfortunately, Shanga Parkerís performance as Bill is almost as hollow and stilted as the character he plays. William Hall, Jr. is totally at home as the downtrodden yet appealing Oldtimer, and the scene in which he revels in being asked his real name is a study in how well an actor can convey the depths of his emotions by just the expressions on his place. Anthony Leroy Fuller and Lakeetra Knowles are unable to bring much to the brief, sketchily observed roles of Sonny-Man and Cynthia.
Matthew Smuckerís set design for Billís art strewn apartment is well wrought, with a nuanced lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins. The costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess inhabit rather than comment on the time period of the play.
Wine in the Wilderness runs through July 9 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.