Watching "Gleam" at Center Stage is like visiting a distant era that actually wasn't all that long ago. This play takes place between 1903 and 1928 in a rural Florida town. Its residents' customs and speech patterns seem closer to 19th-century traditions than to 20th-century modernity.
Adapted by playwright Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner from Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," the play is at its strongest when it immerses us in that black folk culture. Hurston had a great ear for dialect and it's reflected here in phrasing that speaks to an older America.
The source novel and this theatrical adaptation use those quaint and quirky phrases to animate the story of a woman who basically wants to break free of tradition and explore the modern world. The friction in the fiction, if you will, is that Janie (Christiana Clark) is testing what were considered the demographic limits for blacks and women in that period.
Janie is the kind of character who readily can anchor a play. Your sympathy automatically goes out to her as she endures three marriages to men who are, shall we say, less than enlightened in their domestic assumptions.
Her first husband, Logan Killicks (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), is a much older farmer, who treats her like a farm animal that's expected to be productive. Husband number two, Jody Starks (Axel Avin, Jr.), is initially charming and wins her over with his assertive plans to open his own general store and become the town's mayor, but he eventually treats her as an employee whose intellectual input is not welcome. The third man in her life, Tea Cake (Brooks Edward Brantly), is so much younger that the now-middle-aged Janie is in for an emotionally volatile romance.
Although the plot spends a lot of time documenting Janie's marital misadventures, it's really grounded in woman-to-woman friendships that amount to the sharing of survival tactics.
Orphaned at a young age, Janie is looked after by her grandmother, Nanny (Tonia M. Jackson), who tells her that black women are treated like "the mule of the world."
An older, happily married woman, Pheoby Watson (Stephanie Berry) takes a quasi-maternal interest in Janie and helps her navigate life's difficult passages. Pheoby also serves as the narrator in this play told via flashbacks. This structural device has its share of awkward transitions and narrative gaps, but playwright Rattner always manages to hold our attention as we're shown various chapters from Janie's life.
What truly holds our attention throughout "Gleam" is the long-lasting bond between Janie and Pheoby. Even though Clark takes awhile to warm up and fully inhabit the role of Janie, the actor eventually becomes emotionally compelling; Berry conveys Pheoby's perceptive observations with such assurance that the actor ensures we're along for the narrative ride.
The large and lively supporting cast under director Marion McClinton tends to play its roles broadly rather than going for nuance, but that extroverted style generally works well in a play that feels like a boisterous series of folk tales. Although there are inert stretches in which there isn't much dramatic momentum, the lively acting keeps us engaged.
The folkloric vigor in "Gleam" is given a thematically supportive backdrop by David Gallo's rustic set design, which is mostly comprised of wood platforms and Spanish moss-draped tree trunks. The set is framed by a proscenium arch that resembles a barn wall covered with farm tools.
As your eyes enter into that rural world, you'll notice that the back of the set depicts Florida farmland so flat and empty that nobody could imagine the theme parks and hotels in its future.
"Gleam" runs though Feb. 5 at Center Stage, at 700 N. Calvert St., in Baltimore. Tickets are $10- $55. Call 410-332-0033 or go to http://www.centerstage.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun