Middle Passage: Black Mary tends to Barlow?s weary torso.

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Intimately scaled and yet epic in scope, concerned with the legacy of oppression and the crushing burden of freedom, August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean finds the playwright at his most playful and at his most serious. One character makes his living collecting “pure,” which the unenlightened call dogshit; he’ll turn out to rank high among the play’s righteous figures. And that old lady, the one bossing the rest of the household? She’s Aunt Ester—elusive, iconic, long-awaited Aunt Ester, matriarch and conjure-woman and collective memory incarnate. Don’t cross her, and don’t underestimate her, because she’s got the power to lay you low or to set you free. Set in 1904, Gem of the Ocean is the opening yarn in August Wilson’s century-spanning African-American decalogue, a deep-sunk pillar of a play that looks back toward Emancipation and ahead to sacrifices and outrages greater than its own. Characters who’ll reappear or be referenced, places we’ll come to know, themes that will surface and resurface with the grace and the gravity of great whales: Wilson flourishes them here for the delight of anyone who’s dipped into the chronicle since the outlines of his cycle began to emerge. Handsomely staged but unfortunately flat, Arena’s production suffers most where the play’s richest: in its language. Wilson’s characters—Underground Railroad Ôªøveteran Solly Two Kings, still walking dark and dangerous paths; Citizen Barlow, scrabbling to live up to the name his mother gave him; Caesar, claiming his due and more as factotum to the powers that be—swerve from clipped home truths to spiraling, idiosyncratic arias; and while there’s an enjoyable crackle to the former, director Paulette Randall allows the latter to unspool without much attention to their shape. It’s a shame, too: The production can be lovely to watch, what with Allen Lee Hughes’ coruscating lights marking the climactic ritual moment that strips Barlow clean and sets his feet on the righteous road Solly Two Kings trod before him. There are a handful of dramatic sweet spots, not least between Jimonn Cole’s soulful, questing Barlow and Pascale Armand’s proud Black Mary. But Gem of the Ocean should feel like a kind of vortex—a first-chapter cyclone of words and images drawing watchers ineluctably into the rich, extended historical novel that the other Wilson plays comprise—and the faint, intermittent tugs that Randall’s production exerts are all too easy to resist.