Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
We first meet Selah, a ghostly figure (portrayed here with much conviction by the talented Tangela Large) with connections to several of the characters whose lives she narrates. We are transported back and forth from 1933 to 2016 in the fictional small town of Marah, North Carolina. In the 1930s the plot focuses on the tensions between the white and black communities of the post-Civil War south. In 2016 the tensions switch to those between the whites and the Hispanic immigrant community. Spanning the years is an aging matriarch, Ms. Maggie (a heartbreaking Rebecca Guy), who struggles with her memory to reclaim a tragic secret she has kept hidden so well she has almost hidden it from herself, about her family and this town where she has lived in so many years. All the while, we see the lives in both time periods evolve, culminating in a final moment of clarity.
Mr. Wiley has developed a very interesting concept, weaving multiple stories together into one. One might argue that it is almost too interesting and complex for an audience to follow in a meaningful way. It was wise, whether it in his crafting of the play or through the direction of the brilliant Vivienne Benesch, that most of the actors play multiple roles, reinforcing the parallels between Marah in 1933 and 2016. But not enough time is spent to flesh out any of them, and they are rather predictable in their actions. It is possible to forecast most of the plotlines before they happen.
In its complexity and form, and even in the cinematic direction of Ms. Benesch, is the suggestion that this play with music might have been better envisioned as a full-blown musical. Laurelyn Dossett has made a name for herself regionally and beyond with songs that beautifully evoke North Carolina heritage. Here she supplies a handful of wonderful songs ranging from classic folk and bluegrass to rhythmic rap made familiar to Broadway audiences by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Her work might have been leveraged more fully to provide the compressed character and plot development used so effectively in shows like Les Misérables and more recently, Come From Away.
Vivienne Benesch's direction does an excellent job of streamlining a great many sudden leaps in time and place, and she has also assembled another top-notch team of collaborators. Scenic design by Jan Chambers is astonishing in its craft: a curved, eroding road underneath a rustic public service billboard cuts through a hodgepodge of knickknacks and bric-a-brac representative of the sentimental attachments of home as well as the remnants left of our ancestors that we in present day have to clean up after and contend with. Multiple platforms divide up the rest of the space for various settings and also symbolize the way a single space fragments into many smaller ones. ML Geiger's lighting design contributes greatly to time and mood; the billboard that looms over the set shifts back and forth from a vintage message describing Marah as the "Pearl of the Piedmont" to a modern political banner about an ordinance to limit immigrant rights, underscoring where and when we are.
It is difficult to single out anyone in this cohesive cast, many of whom receive equal time and attention from the material. Tangela Large (Selah) and Rebecca Guy (Ms. Maggie) give the most memorable performances, but two supporting actors impressed me the most: Trevor Johnson (making his PlayMakers debut) as Reverend Jackson/Benn Mason/N'thaniel and Alex Givens as Andre/Seth are real and sincere, finding truth in speeches that don't always feel organic. Being a native North Carolinian, I did notice disparities and inconsistencies in accent and dialect among those characters.
The Bible tells of Adam and Eve being banished by God from their home in the Garden of Eden for the sins they committed. Being cursed, their ancestors then wandered through the wilderness, searching for a new place to call their own, never finding true belonging. That is the case here, too, in this rural town, where the sins of its ancestors are visited on their descendants. Truth, like home, may not always come easy, but it always has value, when it is found.
Leaving Eden, through April 22, 2018, by PlayMakers at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.
Playwright: Mike Wiley