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Javon Johnson’s melodrama about an African-American single mother’s yearning to escape her life seems Hollywood to the marrow, Soul Food instead of August Wilson (to whom Johnson is often compared). In fact, the play nearly chokes on its own cliches—so more’s the wonder that it pointedly upends one of the biggest stereotypes of all: the dutiful, self-sacrificing black woman who wants only a better life for her children. That bit of literary bravery, along with an excellent cast, makes the Studio Theatre premiere production of Runaway Home a subversive if not completely convincing imitation of life.

The play’s title refers not to a home full of runaways but one that creates them, the claustrophobia of poverty and stolen futures driving nearly a whole family out of its ever-swinging screen door. The mother, BettyAnn Moore (Rosalyn Coleman), returns from work at dawn to a cluttered, tumbledown house (in an extraordinarily detailed set by designer Daniel L.

Conway) that reflects not only BettyAnn’s lack of money but also her depression. The ancient Frigidaire, the battered battleship of a sofa, the forgotten high chair tucked in a corner bespeak a mind-set frozen in time—an almost elderly outlook for this 36-year-old South

Carolinian.

Well, being poor will do that to you. Then BettyAnn’s five kids blow in, streaming over the threshold and out of the bedrooms like circus clowns from a Volkswagen. Eldest son Steedee (Brandon J. Price) and daughters Angel (Edwina Findley) and Shadymae (Ashley Blaine Featherson) are all teenagers testing her limits in predictable ways. Younger sons Junebug (Christopher Gallant III) and Tee Tee (Javier D. Brown) are, as their names indicate, unbelievably cute. BettyAnn, though, treats them all acidly. The intensity of her resentment toward their signs of individuality shows not just that she’s losing control of them, but that she’s jealous of their possibilities, too.

Speaking of jealous, BettyAnn also has suitors: the jokester Big Eddie (Cleo Reginald Pizana), who brings her free wood, and the graying Thomas (Frederick Strother), who steals groceries from his own store for her. She plays them for what they can provide but doesn’t take them seriously—especially after Paul (Sekou Laidlow), the high-school sweetheart who’s now got an R&B hit on the radio, walks back into her life after 20 years of silence, as if he had just left 10 minutes ago. And the improbable becomes incredible when we find out that he wrote the song for her when they were dating.

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Turns out that Paul kept writing letters to BettyAnn throughout his long climb to the top—letters that her mother intercepted and returned. He’s been thinking about her all along, and now that he’s hit the big time, he’s come back for her, a deus ex machina in gold chains and a $500 suit. “I was sad as any tear that dropped from your eye,” Paul tells her. (He often sounds like the Temptations in iambic pentameter.) Paul’s a tempting package, but he wants nothing to do with her kids, and in BettyAnn’s choice to stay or go away with him lies the play’s slender drama.

That BettyAnn is already driving off her older daughters makes her decision considerably easier. She refuses to empathize with either Shadymae’s blossoming sexuality or Angel’s college ambitions, even though she herself fell into a teenage marriage and missed out on the world. Having played them off each other their entire lives (Angel the smart and pretty one, Shadymae the black sheep), BettyAnn can only insult them when they ask for her help in breaking away. Johnson has a great theme within his grasp: the way mothers can sabotage their daughters, how one generation can use the burden of its thwarted dreams to bury the next.

But Runaway’s many other stories deflect from that opportunity—Steedee’s drug dealing, and Tee Tee’s sprained ankle, and the suitors’ rivalry, and the potty mouth of Uncle Frank (Wayne W. Pretlow), home from a cross-country trucking run with knee-slapping tales about Idaho hookers. Johnson has said that Runaway Home is his attempt to make sense of the life of an aunt, and the script does feel naturalistic in that it offers a menu of competing narratives and weights them all equally. The characters are hoary types, though—the son who stays out all night, the good and the bad daughter, the irresponsible men, the idealized savior. They stack end to end instead of meshing, adding up to an unfocused and rather laborious experience.

What’s absolutely sharp are the performances of Studio’s cast, first-rate from the youngest on up. As BettyAnn, Coleman expertly conveys a woman hiding from herself, housebound for almost the entire 150 minutes but not really there anymore psychically. She shuffles around like a wraith in an ugly green robe—and then, given a breath of hope, emerges like a butterfly from a cocoon for a dinner with Paul. She rocks in an almost girlish way near him, her hair tumbling and beautiful, the years melting off her.

Masters Gallant and Brown are eye-wideningly precocious, and Pizana also stands out as Big Eddie, a ball of lightning who turns using a corkscrew into an act worthy of the Kama Sutra. Director Regge Life sets up some hilarious turns, although the 1981 setting barely registers, and one wishes he had found a way to make the house itself (as in all really good melodramas) more of a character.

Johnson in fact does comedy with much more assurance and effect than passion or tragedy. After Frank’s rich description of a full-armed whipping from his father—”Daddy took that belt all the way back to the Depression and brought it up all the way through the civil rights movement”—it’s hard to believe that platitudes such as “The world is moving, and we’re at a standstill!” issued from the pen of the same writer—and that that same writer also doesn’t seem to trust his themes to emerge without telegraphing.

What power Runaway Home has is in its absences: the long-gone father, the lack of choices for women like BettyAnn, and finally the departure of BettyAnn herself. A mother who willingly leaves her children is one of the last taboos; and to see the desperation behind that decision is both shocking and illuminating, however forced the rest of the play. CP