Pictured: (standing) Theodore “Priest” Hughes and George Forbes. (seated) Granville O’Neal, Jerron O’Neal and Lewis J. Morrow. Photo by Bob Paisley.
Review: GEM OF THE OCEAN at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre
By Jason Epperson
1904. Pittsburgh. 1839 Wylie Avenue. Aunt Ester’s “peaceful home” is a place where souls are tended. Citizen Barlow is a young man from Alabama searching for redemption after watching a man drown himself after being falsely accused of a petty crime Barlow committed. He has a hole in his soul that needs healing. Don’t we all. Aunt Ester guides him on a journey of spiritual awakening to the City of Bones.
To summarize GEM OF THE OCEAN is akin to summarizing a Robert Frost poem — no word is out of place and any attempt at encapsulating it is an exercise in futility. So many reviews PerformInk has released in Kansas City and Chicago in the last several months mention a play’s relevance, it’s timeliness. GEM is searingly timely, but it touches so many segments of life I’m not sure when it would be untimely. Is it about the Black experience? Is it about Family? Is it about love? Is it about spirituality? Is it about redemption? Is it about power? Is it about America? Yes.
To me, GEM OF THE OCEAN is the greatest play of the 21st century, and August Wilson stands tall next to Williams, Miller, and O’Neill as one of the finest interpreters of the life experience the American theater has ever produced. He is a poet that will rip your heart in two and build it back into something stronger than it ever was. This masterpiece should be taught in high school english classes alongside Shakespeare, and time will only be kind to it.
Karen Paisley’s production mostly lives up to Wilson’s masterpiece. The cast perhaps needs a few more days to settle in, and the comedy could be more acute, but all seven turn in disbelief-suspending performances. Lewis J. Morrow is particularly powerful as Mr. Citizen. The framework of a set and evocative lighting serve their purpose. Shannon Regnier’s well-executed costumes feel authentic and appropriate. Aunt Ester’s dresses, in particular, are lovely. The production really shines in the City of Bones sequence, a stellar piece of minimalistic stagecraft that takes us aboard a ship to the mythical city utilizing what’s lying around the house.
Sitting in the MET’s church pews witnessing Wilson is truly a spiritual, soul-cleansing experience well worth the price of admission.
GEM OF THE OCEAN runs through March 11th. For more information visitmetkc.org.