Eerie Twists in Gee's Bend

Amid Athol Fugard’s Nobel Prize–worthy opus are plays about individuals on the margin of the Big Picture. In Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, Sizwe Banzai Is Dead, and others, Fugard shows the cruel effects of Apartheid on people who don’t make the news and whom we wouldn’t know otherwise: in effect, the human toll taken by subhuman laws and ­creeds.

In Gee’s Bend, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder takes a Fugardian approach. The title is an all-black rural community across the Alabama River from Camden and southeast of Selma. The play follows three generations of Pettway women. While some live outside of history, Sadie jumps ­in.

Her husband Macon says she’s “41 years old and doesn’t know how the world works.” The play never gives Sadie detailed motives or rhetorical flourishes about injustice (she drinks from a “whites only” fountain, for example, because she’s “thirsty”); she instinctively reacts to oppression. In 1965, she registers to vote and joins Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 600 marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest voting rights and the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Six blocks from the starting point, state troopers turned on the crowd with billy clubs and tear gas. The assault came to be known as “Bloody ­Sunday.”

In Gee’s Bend’s most powerful scene, Sadie returns from “Bloody Sunday” late at night. Beaten and nearly blind from tear gas, she drags herself to the door, only to find that her husband — who ordered her not to go, or else — locked her out. To Macon, “a vote out there” means “no vote in ­here.”

At the North Coast Rep, Monique Gaffney makes this scene unforgettable. Doubly rejected — by the world and her husband — Sadie crumbles on the hardwood porch. “They beat me,” she shouts to deaf ears. Sadie’s been chopped — not just cut — adrift, with no mooring anywhere. A lesser actor would milk the scene. Gaffney doesn’t; she lives it, eloquently releasing the shock of lost innocence, the pain of separation, and the glimmer of a resolve never to let this happen ­again.

Nothing else in Gee’s Bend comes close to this scene. The play’s epic sweep — from 1939 to 2002 — thins it out. The script feels padded, in fact, as if it began as a 90-minute sprint and the playwright decided to tack on more. The third section, set in 2002, feels like a long, languid ­denouement.

A motif that needs more emphasis: the women aren’t Fugardian unknowns. They’re some of the internationally acclaimed creators of the Gee’s Bend quilts — each top, pieced from discarded clothes, a personal expression of the quilter. The extraordinary abstract designs, in blazing colors, recall, among other things, the mystical “portals” of Native American rock art (a good, albeit pricey, book on the subject: Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts).

The playwright doesn’t do much with the quilts as personal expression. She may have avoided what the musical Quilters, where every patch has meaning, has done. Also, having Sadie become such a success detracts from her struggle. The dilemma, however, detracts from the ­play.

For the North Coast Rep, director Yvette Freeman uses her considerable skills to serve the story. Though little happens through long stretches, the movement is seamless. As her character, the stay-at-home Nelia, ages, Licia Shearer’s performance grows (she neither quilted nor protested, but she too had a life). Charmen Jackson shows her versatility as old Alice and young Asia. But Lawrence Brown’s Macon gets caught in a malicious turnabout. Macon’s sudden violence may be real-life true, but in the script, and Brown’s performance, it lacks ­veracity.

Just in time for Halloween: Robert Louis Stevenson’s staid Dr. Jekyll’s at Ion Theatre with his beastly counterpart, whose “appetites would insult the devil.” Actually, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation has four Mr. Hydes, emerging from curtains, walls, and inky darkness. The actors, who scrunch and gnarl, also play upstanding citizens in the same outfits, which underlines Stevenson’s claim that we are all ­“double-minded.”

Director Kim Strassburger strikes an impressive balance between melodrama and humor. This is the funniest Jekyll and Hyde I’ve seen (especially when David McBean parodies stiff-collar Victorian rectitude or utters the word “exemplary”). At the same time, the director achieves a creepy atmosphere without straining for the ghoulish. The spare set includes a mobile door, gray on one side, red on the other, and designer Karen Filijan footlights the cast, as in old mellydramers, with a shadowy, between-worlds ­atmosphere.

Well-spoken Walter Ritter keeps the good doctor’s façade intact until, like Dorian Gray, he can no longer. Patrick Duffy, Susan Hammons, and Nick Kennedy smartly give their Hydes some less-than-monstrous touches — suggesting that the mind may not be “bifurcated” after ­all?

The playwright dumped the doctor’s bland fiancée and has the prostitute Elizabeth Jelkes fall for Hyde/Jekyll. This change allows Rachel Van Wormer (at once vulnerable and assertive) to add a telling twist: see the good in an allegedly evil ­man. ■

Gee’s Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by Yvette Freeman; cast: Lawrence Brown, Monique Gaffney, Charmen Jackson, Licia Shearer; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Valerie Henderson; lighting, M. Scott Grabau; sound and projections, Chris Luessmann; musical direction, original music, Lanny Hartley
Playing through November 7; Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. 858-481-1055.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella by Jeffrey Hatcher
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Kim Strassburger; cast: Patrick Duffy, Susan Hammons, Nick Kennedy, David McBean, Walter Ritter; scenic design, Matt Scott; costumes, Claudio Raygoza; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, Melanie Chen
Playing through November 20; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-5020.

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