Who's on Faust?

How far will a man go to win back his own soul? That question drives the drama of two new productions, Jubilee Theatre's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Lyric Stage's Cabin in the Sky. Each tells the story of a troubled man who finds himself driven to the hinges of Hades. And in each it is the boundless faith of a good woman that brings him back and grants him grace.

There are other similarities shared by these two shows, including their casting of strong ensembles of local black actors, but there is one major difference. Only Joe Turner's Come and Gone, one of the earliest and finest plays by the late playwright August Wilson, really has a prayer of deeply touching the souls of its audience.

Set in 1911 Pittsburgh, Wilson's two-act drama unfolds around the busy kitchen table of a black-owned working-class boarding house. As landlady Bertha Holly, played with quiet intensity by Stormi Demerson, shovels fresh biscuits onto the boarders' plates, her husband Seth, played by wiry Lloyd W. L. Barnes Jr., frets endlessly over money. Always fearful of losing the house he owns, Seth works the night shift at a factory, then earns extra dollars making pots and pans out of sheet metal in his shed out back. His biggest customer is Rutherford Selig (Abel Baldazo Jr.), a peddler known as a "first-class people finder" for his detailed records of the whereabouts of black families living on his route between Pittsburgh and Memphis. For a dollar per request, Selig hunts down long-lost relatives, boasting a high rate of return.

The theme of personal identities and loved ones lost and found recurs throughout this work. Barely half a century removed from the Civil War, even the youngest residents of the Holly house carry the emotional scars of families separated by slavery. The most mysterious of the small group of boarders, glaze-eyed Herald Loomis (F. Carl Brown), was ripped away from his wife, Martha Pentecost, to endure seven years of forced labor under the notorious Joe Turner, a Tennessee plantation owner who kidnapped freed men and illegally enslaved them.

Loomis, with young daughter Zonia (Orlexia Thomas), has walked from town to town searching for Martha (Regina Washington). Turns out Seth Holly probably knows her whereabouts, but Loomis is so spooky he's not sure he wants to tell him. Loomis pays the peddler for help tracking her down and also enlists the house's resident "conjure man," Bynum Walker (Robert Rouse Jr.), who casts spells out in the yard and fills his pockets with voodoo-like charms and talismans.

Walker, unreeling long parables from his perch at the table, warns Loomis that he hasn't only lost a wife, he's also lost his soul, or his "song," thanks to the evil deeds of Joe Turner (whom we never see). "He's got you bound up to where you can't sing your own song. Couldn't sing it them seven years 'cause you was afraid he would snatch it from under you," Walker says.

Loomis' awakening from his numbed psychosis comes at the end of the play in a scene that combines religious fervor, a violent physical confrontation and the longed-for reunion of the man with his wife. It is soul-shattering and soul-saving and, under the direction of Jubilee's new artistic director Ed Smith, absolutely enthralling. What a pleasure to watch actors who trust each other not to overdo the big moments. They allow Wilson's wonderful words and some tense stretches of silence to draw the audience in.

The acting is more subtle, more disciplined than in previous productions here. Rouse, one of Jubilee's best-loved veterans, restrains his natural tendency toward broad comedy and makes his Bynum Walker a believable mystic able to calm the troubled spirit of Herald Loomis when no one else can reach him.

The beauty of August Wilson's writing in Joe Turner's Come and Gone is that it lives in the natural cadences of kitchen-table talk. The magic comes when Wilson takes the action out of the realm of realism and into the mystical. With seamless transitions, it's easy to get swept into the magnificent rush of the play's passionate messages about faith and redemption. It's Wilson at his best, and this production, the first of a series of Wilson plays Smith says he plans to produce at Jubilee, shows a company achieving new levels of artistic excellence.

Cabin in the Sky also takes up the story of a man who's lost his soul. Lyric Stage, the little Irving troupe that specializes in obscure or rarely done musical theater pieces, gives us a less-than-heavenly version of the 1940 Broadway show that became a 1943 Vincente Minnelli movie.

Looks like there are valid reasons why this one fell into obscurity for 60 years. It's just not very good. The book by Lynn Root is talky and drab where it needs to be succinct and witty. The music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by John LaTouche tend toward the tuneless and forgettable. The one well-known number, "Takin' a Chance on Love," comes early in the first act, followed by a raft of songs whose melody lines wander so haphazardly that the singers have trouble keeping up.

It's the classic Faustian bargain story in Cabin. Little Joe Jackson, played by Vince McGill, lies at death's door after being shot in a gambling dispute. Long-suffering wife Petunia (Eleanor T. Threatt) clasps her hands and begs God to let him join the angels. Satan's messenger, The Head Man (Wilbur Penn), is there to claim sinful Joe, but The Lord's General (Marcus M. Mauldin) decides Joe can have six more months on earth to find salvation and earn his ticket to heaven.

The biggest problem with Cabin is its pacing. It's so slow it feels as though it's being built log by log. In the first half-hour there are only two songs, both dirge-like. The staging is static; the orchestra draggy and out of tune (those horns!). Though director Bruce Wood is also credited for choreography, there's not much dancing other than a few Charleston steps in a honky-tonk scene. Many songs are sung sitting down.

The devil may be one of the major figures in Cabin in the Sky, but he's also in the details that keep it from ever lifting off.

Godawful is the best word for Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living, the grim and grisly season opener for Second Thought Theatre, the Baylor drama grads who perform in the intimate Studio Theatre at Addison's WaterTower complex.

The first act of this drama, directed with no sense of decency by Tom Parr IV, heaps violence against teenage girls on top of pornographic sex, vile language and spousal abuse. The villain, an ex-con named Clint (played by Dan Forsythe, a Danny Bonaduce look-alike), struts nude around bleak motel room sets as his bruised and battered 17-year-old wife, Lisa (Jenny Ledel, who's seen half-naked), watches him drug and rape girls before she helps dump their bodies.

The dialogue drops phrases such as "twat rot" into the atmosphere. There are implied blowjobs and barely concealed fornication, overt lesbian sex acts and a creepy strangulation. Actresses playing underage victims are stripped naked and molested in disturbing proximity to the audience in the tiny theater.

This is American Psycho meets Ted Bundy meets a playwright in need of a salacious gimmick. Watching it feels like being violated. Nothing short of a hostage situation could have made me sit through the second act of this misogynistic swill, so I didn't. As a piece of theatrical art, The Glory of Living is a stain on American playwriting, an insult to the First Amendment and one sorry choice of material by an up-and-coming theater company.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner