If there ever was a show that made an audience feel less like singin' the blues, it would have to be Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Lackawanna Blues, currently enjoying a welcome Seattle engagement at Intiman Theatre. Santiago-Hudson's one-man show is an unguarded valentine to Miss Rachel Crosby, his "Nanny," who raised him in Lackawanna, New York, in the 1950s. But though Nanny is central to the tale, he has written and performs a remarkable gallery of characters, some twenty by my count, from which he and his director Loretta Greco create a swift and bracing ninety-minute theatrical miracle.
Santiago-Hudson, as adept an actor as he is a rather remarkable harmonica player, is not alone on the stage as he introduces us to the citizens of Lackawanna, as he is joined by a most felicitous and soul-stirring composer and guitarist, Bill Sims, Jr. Both men took home Obie awards for their efforts on this show, most deservedly. Their music, especially Sim's wailing guitar underscoring, greatly adds to the cumulative effect of the performance, as a transporting theatrical memoir of life in a place where things weren't always easy, but, thanks to Nanny's guiding hand, the memories are far more sweet than bitter.
Nanny, who raised young Ruben since his own single mother wasn't up to the task, ran a Lackawanna boardinghouse, and the majority of the characters brought so vividly and distinctly to life by Santiago-Hudson resided there while he was growing up. The actor is simply astonishing in his subtle vocal and physical transformations, which sometimes require him to play several characters at once. There is the transfixing story of a man who relates how he lost his arm to snakebite venom as he was on the run from killing a white man. There is the tale of Nanny's second mate Bill, who gets ticked off at Ruben on a fishing trip and leaves him to walk home in his underwear. And there is Nanny's brave stand against a man who has been beating his wife and children.
Particularly touching is the scene in which a grown Ruben visits Nanny on what seems likely to be her deathbed, yet she rallies and comes back for more against all odds. And when the author/actor gets the phone call that Nanny has in fact passed on, we in the audience feel the loss keenly, for Santiago-Hudson's evocation of her has been so vivid and multidimensional. He reminds us all of the Nannys in our own lives, and how much we owe to them.
Lackawanna Blues plays at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St. in Seattle Center, through July 13. For more information, visit Intiman's website at www.intiman.org.