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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

January LaVoy, Tracey Bonner, and Kevin T. Carroll.
Photo by Richard Termine.

There's little actual music in Home, the heartfelt 1980 play by Samm-Art Williams that the Signature Theatre Company is reviving at Peter Norton Space. But what's revealed in Ron OJ Parson's spirited production, the second in Signature's season-long tribute to the Negro Ensemble Company, is that this is a work of symphonic scope capable of putting most current Broadway musicals to shame.

True, the show today doesn't seem as inventive as it once must have. That three actors (Kevin T. Carroll, Tracey Bonner, and January LaVoy) play over two dozen parts and supply much of the soundtrack is a feat that's been seen many (maybe too many) times in recent years, in plays on Broadway (The 39 Steps) and Off (Around the World in 80 Days). And, nearly three decades on, the specific struggles of a poor Southern black man named Cephus Miles (Carroll) through 25 years of turbulent history (from the late 1950s to the early 1980s) have lost some of their pertinence.

But the rhythm of Williams's storytelling shimmers still, resounding even now with the piercing trebles, throbbing basses, and infectious drum beats of a tale that needs to be told: of achievement, of loss, and ultimately of redemption. Home unfolds as a quartet of movements, each adding new layers of melody and dissonance to this engaging, mini-epic chronicle of modern African-American evolution.

The expectant laziness of Cephus's early days on a farm in Cross Roads, North Carolina, is tempered by his innocent romance with the neighbor girl Pattie Mae (LaVoy), who goes off to college and returns no longer needing him. Cephus's plainspoken protestation of the Vietnam War ("Thou shalt not kill. Love thy neighbor") leads to a five-year incarceration, rendered as a muttered adagio of half-realized ambitions. His brief, drunken period living high in the big city after his release supplies the peppery, undulating climax; his decline and rebirth within a brave new integrated world outline his life's comfortable coda.

Within the sections, each actor takes up a variety of instruments: the women's spiritual singing, as in the opening seconds; or their whispering repetitions of phrases suggesting the toiling of field workers or the roar of the subway; or even Cephus's pure recitation of poetry to elicit art from the mundane. Both of the women assume roles of varying ages and genders, often within scenes, to chart the always-weaving tapestry of Cephus's existence. One particularly brash solo involves Cephus detailing his capitalistic encounters with a man professing to be a Cherokee Indian chief; and his regularly recurring conclusions about God vacationing in Florida tinkles throughout the play as a vital, but lighthearted, leitmotif.

Parson conducts all this with a nimble hand, never allowing heaviness to descend on the action even in the darkest of scenes. His staging is so often so actively cinematic and intensely choreographed that by the end of the evening Shaun Motley's adrift-in-the-void cottage set, Ilona Somogyi's costumes, and Michael Chybowski's lights have taken on lives of their own and become recognizable characters.

Important as they are to the fabric of Cephus's existence, the human performers are even more vivid quick-change artists. As Pattie Mae, LaVoy is sometimes stern and statuesque and other times supple and thoughtful, but always warmly believable as a woman just as lost in her way as Cephus is in his; she's every bit as lively in her other, more minor, roles. Bonner plays a series of saucy ornamental personalities with unflagging devotion, generally acting as the social consciousness that guides Cephus in his most confounded moments. Carroll plays only Cephus, but expertly manages the difficult changes in mood and situation that mirror his roundabout journey to understanding.

Home essentially ends where it begins, perhaps too conveniently closing a book that deserves a truer, less-graceful finish. But there's nothing unsatisfying about Williams's look at how one man strives for a second chance - and finally gets the shot at it he's always deserved. Cephus's story may risk being seen as old hat in the Age of Obama, but his lucky breaks, heartbreaks, and breakneck tour through life remain a smart, stirring, and universal examination of the highs, lows, and in-betweens we all experience in pursuing our own personal American dreams.

Through January 4
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenue.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Signature Theatre Company

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