Madison Repertory Theatre, through May 13 at the Overture Center's Playhouse
As the New Yorker drama critic John Lahr is fond of saying, a good playwright reveals what a play is about in the first 40 seconds. Every so often I like to test this theory, and it certainly is true with Samm-Art Williams' Home, staged by the Madison Repertory Theatre.
The first words spoken come from a character identified only as Woman Two. She intones, "If there was ever a woman or man, who has everlasting grace in the eyes of God. It's the farmer woman...and man." Her counterpart, Woman One, responds, "Tenders to the soil. Children of the land."
The phrases "babies of the soil" and "children of the land" are repeated numerous times in this play, which is both an homage to rural roots - a physical, tangible sense of home - and a character study of one African American man during the turbulent years from the late '50s to late '70s.
UW theater professor Patrick Sims stars as Cephus Miles, a native of tiny Cross Roads, North Carolina. When first we meet him, life seems relatively good: Cephus has a strong faith, family he loves and the prospect of marrying his sweetheart, Pattie Mae. Yet life's events shake his faith. Relatives die, Pattie Mae moves away for college, and being drafted for Vietnam challenges Cephus' ethic of "thou shalt not kill." Refusing to fight, Cephus lands in prison and eventually hits rock bottom. It is Cephus' journey home, both literally and metaphorically, that drives the play.
While Sims remains in character as Cephus throughout the show, Tracey Bonner and Olivia Dawson must frequently switch personas, playing both male and female characters from Pattie Mae to a Sunday school teacher, a reverend, a bus driver, a soldier, a drug dealer and others. Modest wardrobe items like hats and shawls help distinguish the characters.
Under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, the three actors form a tight ensemble, and the women excel in their ability to shift character rapidly and convincingly. Bonner and Dawson also get some of the best comedic moments, which drew plenty of laughs at a recent matinee with a lot of teenagers in the crowd.
Sims portrays Cephus as a conflicted man who feels deeply and struggles for his place in a world that is rapidly changing due to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. He's a garrulous charmer who is shaken to the core when his life doesn't unfold as planned. As Reverend Doris says, "Keep your eyes on this one. He ain't a whole Christian yet."
Home tends to be a bit talky at times. Some of Cephus' lengthy anecdotes don't add up to all that much, but that's a reflection on the script, not the actors. Yet the play also has some punchy dialogue that is poetic and percussive, and this cast (especially Bonner) makes the most of it. Add in its nontraditional structure, with fluid shifts of time and character, and local theater's general lack of focus on the experiences of people of color, and Home is a singular contribution to this season's theater schedule.