If you're going to run from the swamp, you'd best keep running. Oya runs fast enough to earn a track scholarship, but stays behind to care for her ailing mother. When autumn rolls around again, the scholarship is gone. Then she turns down the affections of a responsible but boring man, Ogun, in favor of Shango, a Lothario who swaggers through life with his hand on his cock. You can see where this is going. Oya's misfortunes unfold as in a dream, one scene rolling suddenly into the next with a terrible logic. We are all dreaming.
In the Red and Brown Water is the first of Tarell Alvin McCraney's three interrelated "Brother/Sister Plays" set in the fictional delta town of San Pere, La. (Portland Playhouse is presenting all three in repertory. The remaining two open April 21.) The 31-year-old playwright has attracted enthusiastic comparisons to August Wilson, but they share little beyond census designation and a fascination with the rhythm of American speech. For all his lyrical talent, Wilson had a weakness for eye-rolling overstatement, as if to shout, "See what I did there?" McCraney's writing never breaks rhythm to check if the audience is keeping up. The words flow as if they'd been passed down from generations long forgotten, sometimes unintelligible but always moving. The characters voice their stage directions before they perform them, or at least those that can be performed. Brian Demar Jones doesn't quite "enter like the moon," but he gets as close as one could hope.
Director Victor Mack emphasizes McCraney's mythic tone with repetitive choreography and naturalistic emotion. The sense of an ancient present is reinforced by the fantastic, allusive costumes created by Kathy Scoggins and Ramona Lisa Alexander from street fashion. The cast is among the finest I've seen on stage this season. Alexander sweeps up the audience in Oya's bad decisions while Damian Thompson, full of erotic menace, seduces and repulses. Jones, who I hope will become a regular in the Portland scene, seems to float delicately through the scene, his angular frame astonishingly graceful. Their performance is entrancing; days later, I've yet to feel awoken.
SEE IT: In the Red and Brown Water is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715, portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays through April 15; 4 pm Saturdays and 7:30 pm some Fridays April 21-May 13. $12-$23.