Stefan Graves Lanfer's adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country (Center House Theatre; ends Saturday, April 10) is about hatred and racism—and that's why it doesn't work at all, if you want to know the truth. Book-It, one of my favorite local companies, often manages to lose its agile sense of drama the moment it gets its hands on something it considers—gulp—important: Tim O'Brien's grieving, elegant Vietnam remembrance If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home was essentially reduced to earnest combat tableaux, and even a flavorful staging of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became an exercise in poeticmonotony. I'm happy whenever the company decides to focus its considerable energies on complex social concerns, but I get a little grumpy when compassion foregoes execution—it's just not right to expect the nervous liberal politics of a typical Seattle theater audience to pick up the slack when honest engagement falls by the wayside. It takes a lot of dewy goodwill to stick with Cry, the Beloved Country because, sincerity aside, the show is more than a little parched in its purpose.
The problem is that Lanfer and director Myra Platt don't articulate enough of the small, commonplace passions beneath the larger issues of Alan Paton's 1948 novel; the show operates mostly in broad strokes. Set in a pre-apartheid South Africa, the story concerns Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo (William Hall Jr.), who sets off on a revealing journey from his small village to find his errant son, Absalom (Sylvester Foday Kamara), caught somewhere in the volatile racial quagmire of Johannesburg. Paton's forcefully tender contemplation of a land on the brink of change is a more complicated, expansive To Kill a Mockingbird (which it predates by over a decade), a story of love, blood, and forgiveness given identifiably human dimensions. Unfortunately, those concerns are underlined and bold-faced in a staging with too many distractions—there are apt African drums and dance, and a solemn spiritual rendition of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" to top it all off, but it all seems like busywork keeping the production from the more difficult task of dramatic tension.
The accomplished Platt has always known how to convey a great deal without getting fussy, and when she and Lanfer are observant here, there is a hint of something more quiet and powerful at work. With a devoted assist from Msimangu (Reginald Andre Jackson), a younger, fiercer man of the cloth, Kumalo attempts to navigate the turbulent politics of the big city and find out why Absalom won't show his face. The murder of a white social activist (Troy Fischnaller) eventually dovetails with the minister's search, and the production's most effective moment finds the victim's ignorantly privileged father (Terry Edward Moore) having an epiphany in his dead son's study: There amongst the young man's writing and books, he's touchingly awakened to an overwhelming sense of moral duty; his son appears and shares the experience, proudly reading off the titles in his library along with his father.
Mostly, though, Platt's direction is uncharacteristically clumsy. She has Fischnaller overdoing the righteous indignation of his big speech, and the introduction of the wealthy father's plotline is so poorly handled you're not even sure at first why you're meeting him (the fact that Fischnaller also plays another character who comes into contact with Absalom doesn't help the confusion). Emotions continually come out of nowhere, leaving us to fill in the dramatic leaps—at least three times in the show, characters break down into tears from a sadness of which we've seen no other trace.
The acting is openhearted, ingenuous, and, unfortunately, almost completely unconvincing. Hall is stalwart but, like many of the others here, unable to handle the singular Book-It conceit of jumping from narrative to dialogue, which further muddies the storytelling—it takes you half a second to decide whether what he's saying is meant for your ears or for someone else onstage. Jackson (who did nice work in I Know Why . . . and was recently a lusty Edmund in Seattle Shakespeare Company's King Lear) has real presence onstage but shaky technique, while Fischnaller struggles manfully and Kamara seems to be replaying the mellower shades of his fine turn as the beleaguered schizophrenic in Intiman's Blue/Orange. A dignified Moore and Pam Nolte (as his mournful wife) give smart performances as the heartbroken British couple but are nevertheless just a little too-too overburdened with import; Nolte, in particular, seems to have the weight of the world on her noble shoulders. The rest of the ensemble, playing various villagers and city people, are similarly sold on their missions but not as capable of verisimilitude.
Ultimately, Cry, the Beloved Country succeeds in a way that the company only half intends: It makes you want to read the book to get the real story.