Having enjoyed great success with Brian Weaver's 2010 production of August Wilson's final play, Radio Golf, Portland Playhouse now returns to the playwright's work to end its season with his first. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a better play than Radio Golf, its language more lyrical and characters better formed, but this production (directed by Kevin Jones), while good, doesn't match the taut excitement of last year's hit.
The fascinations with music, family and insecurity that appear throughout Wilson's work are already evident here: The entire play takes place in 1923 in three rooms of a Chicago recording studio (neatly stacked back to front in Daniel Meeker's set), where white record producer Studyvant (Bruce Burkhartsmeier) is preparing for a session with blues singer Ma Rainey (alternately Julianne Johnson and Marilyn Keller). The problem: Ma Rainey has not shown up. And Rainey's white agent (Duffy Epstein) runs himself ragged while Rainey's band arrives without her.
The musicians, who gather in the studio's rehearsal room but manage very little rehearsing between a lot of first-rate bullshitting, are the focus of Wilson's and Jones' interest: Cutler, the illiterate bandleader (Wendell Wright); Slow Drag, the apparently dim bass player (Jerry Foster); Toledo, the well-read piano player (Wrick Jones); and Levee, the young, bitter, dangerous trumpeter whose musical brilliance and ambition are mocked by his more sedate bandmates (Victor Mack, in his best performance I've yet seen). These are characters you can chew on for hours. Jones does; the band's scenes are the show's best.
When Rainey does show up, in stunning regalia, things begin to falter. Johnson gave an excellent performance on opening night—much better than her turn in Dreamgirls two years ago—but Jones can't seem to figure out what to do with Rainey's stuttering nephew or vamping flapper girlfriend. I can't either—the characters are superfluous. Jones recovers from the midshow lag powerfully, though: Levee's reaction to Studyvant's rejection of his music is terrifying.
SEE IT: Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715, portlandplayhouse.org. 8 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes May 1. $20-$25.