Hide and seek

The one thing we all have in common is our separateness.
Once launched from the womb, we are all so many Ishmaels seeking connection to a larger whole. Some people seem to feel this sense of isolation and rootlessness more keenly than others. For Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, it's a motif that ripples out from one of his celebrated dramas about the black odyssey in America to the next.

It's at the core of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a play that might be called "important" if that adjective wasn't such a sure turn-off. Let's just say it's funny, sad, disturbing, encouraging, and, ultimately, binding, as audiences are discovering at this stellar production entering its final weekend at Stage West in Fort Worth.

The action takes place in a boarding house in Pittsburgh in 1911. The boarding house itself might be taken as a metaphor for the African-American diaspora. Boarders drift in and out, make temporary connections, are sometimes thrust apart, or choose to seek greener pastures. The one constant is Seth, the landlord, who is the only person in the play with a sense of place, and therefore, with personal assurance about who he is and where he is going.

He has traditions and a craft to uphold, as well as a sense of moral and economic patrimony derived from his father, who owned the boarding house before him. Though Seth's wholehearted devotion to business may have inhibited his spiritual growth, it has allowed him to transcend race. He sees neither black nor white, only green.

Other denizens of the boarding house include Bynum, an enigmatic "conjure man" whose power lies in his ability to "bind" people; Jeremy, a guitar-playing Good Time Charlie; Mattie, a perennial loser at love; and Martha, an amoral female predator. An occasional visitor is Rutherford, a white trader in pots and pans who also serves as a "people finder" for those seeking to reestablish missed connections.

Into this menage comes Harold Loomis and his daughter Zonia. Loomis, a man with an Ahabian cloud of gloom and obsession about him, has been looking for his wife for years. Until he finds his touchstone, the one person who can rebind him to life and to other people, he's doomed to live a spectral existence as a mistrusted and misunderstood outsider.

Loomis--and, to varying degrees, other boarders--has been ripped from his moral, economic, and spiritual base by the powers of racism in America. The dramatic crux of the play revolves around whether he can find a way back to himself and thereby back to others.

One of the pleasures of Joe Turner's Come and Gone is its conventionality. It's refreshing to see a contemporary work of drama that has a real story, real characters, and a recognizable theme. Wilson stakes out dramatic ground that, thankfully, is closer to Chekhov or O'Neil than Beckett. He does not mask lack of talent or a point of view behind avant-garde pretensions.

The mostly Actors Equity cast is clearly happy to sink its teeth into some meaty material. Jim Ponds provides an anchoring presence as Seth, a man who clings to one position as others drift or vacillate around him. Marcus Mauldin earns many of the laughs as the slow-in-the-uptake Jeremy, though his comic sensibility seems a little too influenced by TV sitcoms. Regina Washington delivers an intelligent and quietly effective performance as Mattie, a role that calls for the suggestion of hidden depths that are largely unstated.

Two performances are particularly memorable, however. Grover Coulson Jr. is resoundingly convincing as Bynum. It's the kind of performance that makes you wonder whether the actor and the role are really separable. Bynum, while partly a comic character, also is a visionary and mystic who has penetrated more deeply into the mysteries of life than those around him. Coulson has no problem getting a laugh, but he also has the conviction needed to make Bynum's spiritual quest as absorbing to the audience as it is to himself.

Equally strong is William Earl Ray as Harold Loomis. As Bynum says, Loomis "looks like a man who owes the devil a day's work and is trying to figure how to get out of it." Caught in the purgatory of isolation, Loomis casts a dark shadow over the play that emanates more from his presence than from his words. Ray imparts an unpredictable sense of menace to Loomis that makes his few subdued moments more affecting. In one of the most compelling scenes in the play, he extends a tentative, tender gesture toward Mattie that he can't quite consummate, immediately gaining empathy for a character who has hitherto been uncompromisingly taciturn and remote. It's the highlight of a knock-out performance.

Stage West has reconfigured its space for this play, which is presented in-the-round. Jerry Russell, a sensitive director who knows how to develop the tone and theme of a play while also sweating the details of stagecraft, puts the space to good use. Some actors' expressions are inevitably lost to at least part of the audience in an in-the-round setting, but Russell makes sure, in these situations, to position one actor as a mirror to another. If you can't see one of the players, you can at least see his or her mood reflected in the face of the actor you can see. No performance is lost, and some of the acting is even enhanced by this technique, which, like radio, requires the audience to fill in the missing pieces.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone is one of those rare plays that manage to both entertain and illuminate. Without preaching, and with only a modicum of melodrama, it teaches better than a history book ever could how the black diaspora has shaped the souls of African-Americans. It also conveys the hopeful message that, though we may have drifted or been torn apart as a society and as individuals, there is a way back home.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone runs through May 18. Call (817)

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