There’s a cathartic scene of sacrifice at the end of Eugene O’Neill’s play A Moon for the Misbegotten, a purely anguished moment in which two broken people reach for an endless instant toward shared happiness before one of them turns it away for the other’s sweet sake. A year ago, I sat paralyzed by the grief of that scene, my heart huge in the back of my throat as Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne tightened the screws, turn by merciless turn, on O’Neill’s harrowing finale.
I mention this because there are moments in the theater that you revisit from time to time, when people talk about its aggravations and its artifice; there are moments of such clarity and such annealing fire that they leave you feeling cleaner somehow, energized and renewed despite the pain they uncover and the sad truths they tell us about the mistakes we repeat, generation after tragic generation.
And I mention this because August Wilson’s landmark play Jitney builds to a moment of such power, a father-son confrontation woven of blame and guilt and sorrow, and because Michael W. Howell and Jacinto Taras Riddick, the two men at the center of Studio Theatre’s just-opened production, tear through it nakedly and ferociously enough to have wrung audible sobs from the first-night crowd. If the production is not wholly inspired, if the play itself is not the most elegantly built, this one scene at least is the white-hot stuff of great American drama, and I will remember it as passionately as Riddick and Howell play it.
I will hardly be alone, I suspect: Jitney speaks with a harsh and healing honesty to anyone who’s ever disappointed a parent or failed a child; it is a play choked with frustrated ambitions and crushed hopes and squandered potential, all the sadder for its characters’ essential decency and all the wiser for knowing that decency doesn’t always come right.
Howell plays Becker, the unfailingly upright proprietor of a jitney cab service in Pittsburgh’s dilapidated Hill Districtlike too many once-thriving black neighborhoods, a scarred survivor of one fateful riot and an endless string of ill-considered redevelopment schemes. Riddick is Booster, the son who returns, 20 years a stranger, to make peace with the man whose principled passivity he rejected all but unconsciously in the paroxysm of shame and violence that sent him to prison two decades before. Individually, each actor is good; Howell has an orator’s voice, rich and resonant, and Riddick has the most penetrating kind of stage presence, an intense and centered energy that draws attention precisely for its quiet control. Together, they are electric, and never more so than when they’re hurling Wilson’s emotional thunderbolts.
Their specific tragedy plays out against a backdrop of tangled subsidiary storiesthe near-missteps another young man (Jeorge Bennett Watson) makes as he tries to walk the straight and narrow toward a solid future for his girlfriend (Thembi Duncan) and their baby, the busybody manipulations of a casually malicious older driver (Frederick Strother) who wraps his meddling in the sanctimonious cloak of “telling it like it is,” the weepy comings and goings of an aging alcoholic (Helmar Augustus Cooper) who clings to his bottle as tightly as he does to the sad memory of the wife who left him decades before. Around and above it all hovers the looming deadline imposed by yet another “urban-revitalization” project that proposes to inject new life into the Hill District by ejecting the people who live there: The city will board up the jitney stand, along with the businesses of the other ragtag merchants remaining on their block, at the end of the month.
It’s an all-too-grim, all-too-familiar scene, another distilled picture of the indignities (and stubborn responses, dignified and otherwise) that Wilson’s plays on the African-American experience have chronicled so passionately. But he leavens the sorrows and uncertainties of Jitney’s world with the kind of raillery that always seems to develop whenever grown men are together with time on their hands; his ear for this sort of thing is splendid, and Regge Life directs the brighter bits with a confident, if sometimes overeager, flair. He’s less sure with the moments of tension, though the earnestness is constant; silences stretch awkwardly, confrontations simmer sometimes too long, and the play’s explosive climax, sadly, feels the slightest bit choreographed.
But then Wilson has pretty much thrown a narrative curveball by that point; the “shocker” that caps the play’s action, the twist that provides for Booster’s redemption and his eternal regret alike, feels less accidental than arbitrary. Senseless calamity is part and parcel of life (and of tragic drama), of course, but this one somehow seems like more than just another thread in the coarse fabric of mishap and malign chance from which Jitney’s world is woven.
It is not the play’s only unwieldiness, either: Plot lines meander, potential collisions occur or don’t without explanation, and Wilson doesn’t ever seem to decide whether Strother’s character is a fool or a frightening man. (Whatever happened to the notion that you don’t introduce a gun onstage unless you mean for it to go off?) The production is similarly disorganized: The showiness of Cooper’s and Strother’s performances begins dazzling and becomes draining, and Duncan’s largely inert, reactive presence saps a crucial revelation of the spark it should have.
But there is that wrenching scene, and it alone is confirmation that Wilson is among the brightest stars in the constellation of modern theater. Issues and emotions, family and society, race and responsibility intersect for an instant, and, at the point of convergence, the light their mingling generates is positively blinding.
There are flashes of heat and light in Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, and there are the elegantly crafted devices you’d expect from this other titan of the American theater. But the play, which Leigh Silverman has staged briskly for Theater J, may be most notable for its maddening reluctance to condemn what it confronts. Miller has the ethicist’s perverse habit of bringing equal passion to all sides of an argument, of course, but that scrupulousness seems a little harder to take when the subject is bigamy.
Of course, with Miller, the subject is never merely what’s on the surface, and so the chronicle of Lyman Felt and his two wives is concerned as much with exploring the appetites and self-obsessions of the Ugly Americanof ego-driven human nature itselfas with examining the moral implications of Western marital conventions (and the flouting thereof). And yet Miller still doesn’t conclusively despise or celebrate what he pinpoints so mercilessly; he unearths, examines, spreads out for our review a host of impulses we wouldn’t confess in the intimacy of a lover’s arms, much less in the chilly embrace of a theater seat, and somehow his ruthless refusal to judge leaves us filled with despair about the prospects for our perfectibility.
That’s Miller’s secret: He knows that we believe ourselves to be moral and that we’ll lie to ourselves to prove it. And so Leah (a sleek, vital Susan Rome) and Theo (the formidable Paula Gruskiewicz), the second and first Mrs. Felts, are made to examine their complicity in the situation that’s revealed when their shared husband (Edward Gero, unforgivably coarse and perplexingly attractive) crashes his sports car on a possibly suicidal run down an icy mountain road. Like Lyman, they believe in myths of their own making and desires of their own construction, and in Miller’s eyes this makes all of them, if not precisely guilty, then precisely human. It’s a condition he sees as a prescription for despair, even disaster.
And yet we know instinctively, seeing his characters suffer, how much Miller adores our humanity; he considers what we might be with a charity to equal his gimlet-eyed examination of what we are. Silverman gets this, and she trips light-footed through the play’s crises, encouraging her cast to revel in its ambiguities. Gruskiewicz’s Theo is as starchily funny as she is wounded; Rome’s sensual Leah shares not just Lyman’s appetites but his perverseness and his considerable charm.
Ultimately, what no character shares completely with Lyman is his ruthless devotion to self: He protests that his unorthodox arrangements have made both women happyby making him happy. He’s flourished in the thicket of deception and self-deception; they’ve eaten hungrily of the fruit his lies have borne. Miller signals in the end what most of us would argue from the startthat Lyman’s intellectual gymnastics are little more than self-justifying rationalizationsand yet the punishment he prescribes in the play’s conclusion barely reaches the reap-what-you-sow threshold. Lyman may be unforgivable, the playwright seems to argue, but eventually all of us are; what Miller may be asking us to consider is why we forgive ourselves so much more easily than we forgive each other. CP