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For a decade early this century, the brownstones and apartment buildings of a particular 5-and-a-half-square-mile area of Manhattan stood witness while a squadron of black intellectuals and artists, invigorated by the heroism of black soldiers in the first World War, presided over a flowering of African-American culture that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. For a while anything seemed possible—until the weight of the Great Depression descended to make it all seem like a passing dream.

In her lyrical drama, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Atlanta writer Pearl Cleage focuses on two very different pairs of individuals struggling to make their mark—or just make do—at the tail end of that remarkable decade. The play, given a dramatically solid and visually lavish production at Arena Stage, is hugely entertaining if not entirely consistent, and it’s mature enough in its thinking to pose serious dilemmas for characters without providing neat homilies or pat answers.

The putative central character, Angel, is either a dissipated but essentially good-hearted blues singer who’s been dealt a bum hand or a cold-hearted, manipulative creature who thinks only of her own wants; Cleage hasn’t quite decided, which is the play’s major weakness. There’s plenty of Clair Huxtable in Phylicia Rashad’s Angel—both women are too vividly drawn for it to be otherwise—but the actress supplies a broader range of emotion here than ever on The Cosby Show, and it’s frequently very impressive indeed. One scene, which finds her conversing with a gentleman caller from a window-seat perch, is especially delicious; she fans herself slowly, hypnotically, while she tangles a visiting Alabama farmer in a web of double-entendre, and the relentless flick, flick, flick of Rashad’s wrist does more than anything else to establish the essential predatory felinity of Angel’s sexuality.

Angel’s arch gay sidekick, Guy, is a designer, of Angel’s wardrobe and of extravagant costumes intended for Josephine Baker, the Paris-based star who could be their ticket out of Harlem. Sure, the sissy sidekick stereotype is as done-to-death as the sassy, scrappy hard-luck case (which, come to think of it, is what Angel is), but Mark Young somehow manages to invest Guy with real dignity and still get all the best laughs, sometimes with just a look. He completely steals the show—which is perfectly all right, because Guy is actually one of the play’s moral centers, one of two characters who aren’t afraid to dream big and aren’t too dreamy to work hard to realize their goals.

The other is Delia (Deidrie N. Henry), a Margaret Sanger disciple who at first doesn’t fully understand all the implications of working hand-in-hand with a white woman whose business is urging Harlem’s women to stop having babies. Sam (Wendell Wright), a tireless Harlem doctor , is the one who opens her eyes to the sociopolitical nuances and the risks of her crusade—and inspires her to open her heart as well. Sam and Delia are deliberately earthbound foils for Guy and Angel, and this production’s design and direction do much to underscore that dichotomy; in one brilliant and subtle moment at the very end, one chastened character offhandedly, as if by accident, briefly covers Guy’s glamorous portrait of the elusive, inspiring Baker with a photograph of the more practical Sam, as though to emphasize how thoroughly the outlook has changed for those who remain.

It’s that Alabama farmer, a widower named Leland (Hassan El-Amin), who’s the fly in the ointment; he’s the workingman the sophisticates of the Harlem Renaissance often had no time for or interest in, and he views Angel’s dissolute demimonde with a distrust no less palpable than the demimonde’s disdain for his down-home values. Angel is just desperate enough to see security in his awkward affections and old-fashioned expectations, though, and when things look their bleakest for her she allows her fate to be bound up with his in a way she quickly comes to regret.

Ultimately, Angel’s selfishness is her undoing; Leland’s rigid sense of morality demands an accounting for the way she behaves, and though Cleage drops enough clues along the way to ensure that audiences will see the resolution coming well before it arrives, there’s still a breathless sense of tension over exactly who will be caught up in the reckoning. I must say my suspicions about the outcome proved false, for which I was very glad.

I didn’t pay enough attention when Lee Atwater was still walking among us to know for sure whether playwright Robert Myers and actor Bruce McIntosh create an accurate likeness in Fixin’ to Die, the scabrously funny one-man show that has returned to Church Street Theater, site of its brief but resoundingly successful 1995 run. But it certainly is a compelling portrait of an uncompromising political animal; I’ll confess I learned to despise and to forgive the Republican political operative in the course of 80 minutes.

Atwater was the hard-charging, hard-knuckled chief of the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign, a Southern-born conservative who vowed to “make Willie Horton Dukakis’ running mate.” Myers takes an unabashedly liberal view of the man; nearly everything in the script points to Atwater’s wrongheadedness (on political points as well as on the means he uses to get them across), and there’s no hint that on some issues—smaller government, perhaps—Atwater and his cronies might have been right.

There are a few cheap shots, but nothing especially egregious, and even the lowest blows are redeemed by the wry, energetic charm with which McIntosh delivers them. The actor is especially effective in a scene that details the childhood death of Atwater’s younger brother in a gruesome accident; telling the story, McIntosh underplays the horror of the moment, and it’s riveting and poignant.

It’s in that scene that actor and playwright begin to succeed in their attempt to humanize the monster they’ve spent an hour creating. Whether they’ve managed to redeem him completely by the time they get around to portraying (rather movingly) Atwater’s losing battle with brain cancer will depend on the perspective of individual audience members. Me, I’m inclined to think the bastard got what he deserved—and that nobody really deserves that.CP