By turns giggly and tragic, sitcomic and masquelike, Phylicia Rashad's skillful production of Gem of the Ocean eloquently demonstrates why August Wilson's 2005 demise was a greater loss than the deaths of Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, or Tennessee Williams. They peaked young, but he only made it in middle age, and was going strong in his late 50s when he wrote Gem. Cancer felled him at 60. More than any other playwright of our day, he blends Miller's and O'Neill's incendiary social-realist conscience with a poetical gift akin to Williams.
Gem of the Ocean Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle Center, 443-2222, www.seattlerep.org. Ends May 6.
Gem, the ninth in his 10-play cycle about the black (and the human) condition in Pittsburgh, also proves he can be overearnestly abstract like Miller, verbose like A Moon for the Misbegotten, and mannered like late Williams (in a different manner). And it doesn't matter! Even when he's piling soliloquy upon prolonged soliloquy, the language is so lovely and emotionally affecting, you never want it to stop. You can see why, when the unknown Wilson subjected a 1982 audience to a four-hour early version of Ma Rainey in a saunalike barn at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., not one viewer walked out.
Gem stars Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old slavery survivor and community healer holding court in a Pittsburgh Hill District manse in 1904. Rashad triumphantly played Ester on Broadway (not that she looks 285—receiving worshippers in the Rep lobby, she had to be the best-looking director in Seattle), and she must've had incisive insights for Seattle's Ester, Michele Shay. Shay makes the most of the role, kvetching about her aching bones, rattling off reams of folk wisdom, rhythmically grumbling at the kitchen etiquette of her assistant, Black Mary (Crystal Fox), razzing the local fertilizer salesman—Civil War survivor Solly Two Kings (William Hall Jr.)—and razzing Mary for wrinkling her nose over his product. "How you gonna be scared of dog shit?" inquires Ester, voicing "sheeut" as an operatic dipthong.
The plot is among Wilson's sketchiest, though it provides just enough sense of momentum. A young interloper named Citizen (Khalil Kain) bangs on Ester's door, demanding absolution for a mysterious crime on his conscience. There's a louder bang at the door by Black Mary's brother, Caesar (Stanley Wayne Mathis), the local sheriff doing the white bosses' brutal bidding. Can Ester protect her household from Caesar's rough cuffs? And can anybody escape the long, cold shadow of slavery?
The real structure is not the overall plot but a series of antitheses from scene to scene. Ester and Solly, a onetime guide on the Underground Railroad, trade verbal volleys to top each other as philosophers of history, with Hall often winning the scene. (Solly calls his wares "60-Day Pure," and it took Wilson almost 60 years to craft a character of such pure, clownish nobility.) Fox beautifully embodies Black Mary's slow burn under Ester's not entirely benign tyranny (which turns out to have a clever empowering agenda). Mary debates political morality with Caesar and erotic morality with Citizen in an intriguingly elliptical courtship. Violent white authority offstage is opposed onstage by the superbly, amusingly cornpone Todd Jefferson Moore as a kindly traveling salesman.
The central contrast is between the realist drama of the first act and the daring, soaring symbolic drama of the second, when Ester re-enacts the slaves' trans-Atlantic passage in her parlor. What antiphonal verse, rooted in Aeschylus and the blues! What acting by all! Kudos to designer John Iacovelli for making the place period-real and otherworldly nautical, costumer Susan E. Mickey for a scarily transformative African mask and scarier mummylike whiteface masks, and Allen Lee Hughes for lighting that evokes prison bars better than any I've seen.
Even some of the show's flaws have their uses. As Ester's helper Eli, Allie Woods barely audibly spoke his lines, like his mouth was full of hot marbles he had to keep moving around to keep from getting burned. You want Woods to speak up, because his character is vivid, a stubby, stubborn fireplug of a man. Yet his Method mumble actually helped root the show in everydayness when it threatened to get too unrealistically aphoristic.
Wilson's echoes of past masters enhance the work. Ester is heir to O'Neill's and Williams' matriarchs (and Wilson's own heroic mom). Caesar is a capitalist bully like Death of a Saleman's Uncle Ben. And Gem is a long day's journey into night. But in the end, the voice is like nobody else who ever lived—not even those older guys Wilson used to eavesdrop on in the Hill District. We will not see his like again, but his echo will linger.