Come Home to Syracuse Stage: Sonita Surratt directs

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 04/01/09More articles

6 images in the Surratt album

PHOTOS by Michael Davis (except for that of playwright Samm-Art Williams), used courtesy of Syracuse Stage; reprints are not for sale via Eagle Newspapers.

“You – sun-bather!” growls Cephus Miles (Semaj Miller), turning in the midst of trouble to cast a furious, dark, sidelong glance at the heavens.

For a long time God has not answered this clean-hearted young man from mid-century Cross Roads, North Carolina. A man of less imagination might simply conclude that he had been foolish in his youth and that God was missing altogether. But some years ago, in a lighter, more wheedling mood, Cephus suggested that his old friend the Almighty, with whom he used to talk regularly, must be “on vacation in Miami.” Variations on this idea – shaded with a gamut of emotions from pleading to despair to sarcasm to mockery – flicker through Samm-Art Williams’ "Home" like a bright golden thread.

It’s easy to see why Sonita Surratt would find this script beguiling, but maintaining the freshness of such golden threads through an entire production takes considerable skill. Surratt manages that with room to spare in directing Williams’ Tony Award-nominated play, now at Syracuse Stage’s Black Box Theatre.

“I looked at a lot of plays before this one was offered to me,” said Surratt last Friday, standing in the lobby on opening night. “But once I read the script, that was it. It was the same thing as last year’s production, when I did Horton Foote’s 'A Young Lady of Property.'”

Then Surratt added, “And this cast has worked so hard! You know, I love epic novels and this play is kind of like an epic. There are 28 characters! And four cast members! We had to workshop all those characters and, you know, how they would move at whatever age they would be.”

"Home" begins with an older Cephus Miles, returned from his bruising journeys in the world, rocking on his porch and recollecting, with a couple neighborhood kids taunting this odd, solitary man. The porch belongs to his grandfather’s modest tobacco farm, where he grew up enamored of Pattie Mae Wells (Danielle Leneé). Their delicate, humorous encounter in the hayloft – she’s just been saved at a revival and he’s just got around to declaring his love – is one if the play’s high points. She goes off to Richmond to college and an ill-fated marriage; he goes off to prison for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War and then to New York City’s seamy side, barely escaping the loose women, the drugs and alleys, and the fetid rest room floors where he winds up trying to sleep in peace. Miller is an actor of great physical charisma but his overall performance is equally compelling.

Cephus’s life unfolds before us in a series of vignettes, with Woman One (Nowani Rattray) and Woman Two (Elisabeth Tsubota) transforming into a cavalcade of 26 characters that he encounters. Rattray’s hallucinating, trigger-happy gangster is a particular marvel of comic timing and Tsubota’s drunken old Bowery lady comes close.

Williams’ play premiered Off-Broadway with the Negro Ensemble Company in 1979 with just three characters. Pattie Mae was portrayed as one among the many by the two women. Then its Tony Award-nominated production, which ran on Broadway for a year and a half, continued this configuration, as did its recent revival last December to open the 40th anniversary season of the Negro Ensemble Company. Surratt’s decision to pull Pattie Mae out as a discrete character is a great success dramatically, and Leneé is pitch perfect in the part.

With a student cast and crew, "Home" serves as Surratt’s MFA thesis production. That accounts for the free admission, but don’t let that fool you. This is first-rate drama, richly directed and richly acted. It is also richly staged. Bridgette Levy’s set employs a simple porch under autumn trees, done in warm, honeyed earth tones, suffused with Evan Gannon’s inventive lighting and David Huber’s subtle sound design. The staging underscores Cephus Miles’ affection for this land, as well as the questionable judgment of a God distracted by Miami’s glitz. God comes to her senses in the end though, as does everyone else.

On its first week-end, "Home" competed with SU’s NCAA game on Friday and the Community Folk Art Center’s annual Gala on Saturday night. There’s still time to see it the rest of this week, and it’s the best deal in town.

See “Home” through April 5th, with evening performances Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00 PM plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Reserve a free seat by calling 443.3275 or in person at the Syracuse Stage Box Office, 820 East Genesee St. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com

EDITED: (04/01/09)
add photo gallery & credit

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Samm-Art Williams, Sonita Surratt, Syracuse Stage, Semaj Miller, Danielle Lenee, Nowani Rattray, Elisabeth Tsubota, Bridgette Levy, Evan Gannon, David Huber, Nancy Keefe Rhodes, drama review
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.4/5 (9 votes cast)

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