Having been evicted from its Northeast Portland home by the city—a neighbor complained that the crowds attending performances at the converted church were taking up all the street parking in the area—Portland Playhouse was forced to begin its fourth season in the unfamiliar territory of downtown's World Trade Center. The move is unfortunate, given that August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, like most of his plays, takes place in a single room and would benefit from the warm intimacy of the church. Although director Brian Weaver's production delivers several outstanding performances, it suffers from the scale of the venue.
Gem of the Ocean, the first play in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle and the only to feature an onstage appearance by Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old spiritual matriarch of Wilson's world, takes place in 1906 in Ester's home at 1839 Wylie Ave. The house, where Ester (Brenda E. Phillips) lives with her caretakers, Black Mary (Andrea White) and Eli (Victor Mack), is a sanctuary for the troubled, a beacon of stability in a time when slavery was still a living memory. Designer Daniel Meeker has represented it as a sprawling abstraction, a silhouette and an improbably tall staircase that make for long entrances and exits.
The house is disturbed when Citizen Barlow (Vin Shambry), a young arrival from the South, arrives seeking redemption for stealing a bucket of nails. Another man was accused, and then drowned himself, setting off unrest among the city's black millworkers, and Citizen needs his soul washed—events that provide a framework for Wilson's usual long, idiomatically poetic interrogations of what it means to be black in America. The playwright is at the peak of his powers here, and Weaver's cast does his incredible language justice: Phillips practically sings Ester's evangelical orations; Kevyn Morrow's initially jovial tone as the former slave and underground railroad conductor Solly Two Kings conceals a smoldering rage behind his tired eyes; and Kevin Jones, as the viciously entrepreneurial, patronizing policeman Caesar Wilks, who once shot a man for stealing a loaf of bread and declares the penal code of Pennsylvania his bible, is bright, cruel, resentful and possibly insane. It may take these performers a while to reach center stage, but it's worth the wait.
SEE IT: 7:30 pm Wednesday and Friday, Oct. 12 and 14, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at the World Trade Center Theatre, 121 SW Salmon St., 205-0715, portlandplayhouse.org. Closes Oct. 30. $15-$32.