Start with Justice Theater Project’s May 2004 production of A Lesson Before Dying. Add Nixon’s Nixon, which ran at Manbites Dog Theater three months later. Include Playmakers Repertory Company’s Yellowman, which bowed in March of the following year. Then wait 15 months for the 10-minute play Holy Hell, which capped the ArtsCenter’s 2006 Ten by Ten Festival in July of this year.

These are the four plays, out of well over 400 we’ve seen since September 2003, to have earned our highest–and rarest–recommendation: a five-star review.

To that select company we now add another: Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s production of The Cherry Orchard, now showing at Manbites Dog Theater.

We expect work at the highest level of achievement in regional theater to point the way forward for audiences and artists alike. That is particularly the case with this production, which features inspired adaptation and direction by Jay O’Berski, and a cast of 16 exceptional actors–all of whom are African American.

Critics and theater-goers of long standing have noted the rarity in some local venues–and the absence in others–of productions featuring minority actors (and playwrights and directors). Despite such limited opportunities, a cadre of gifted black theater artists has persisted in this region, and their number has consistently grown, despite such odious manifestations of the color line in American arts as polarized casting, or an extremely limited repertoire of “acceptable” themes, plays and playwrights. (To how many regional audience-members would it come as a complete shock that “Master Harold” … and the Boys is not the only play South African playwright Athol Fugard has ever written? How many of us are truly aware of the world of writers that exist beyond the contributions of Lorraine Hansberry? When will this region see Kia Corthron?)

In short, it was time that O’Berski reminded us that the only true limits in casting are those of the imagination, and that artists flourish only when they’re allowed to reach out to all regions of the human experience. When they may, in the company of a sensitive director, the results look a lot like this.

Inexorably, it wasn’t just Byron Jenning’s Lopakhin, a former servant now become a monied merchant, who found himself swept up into the rich but slowly fading tapestry of an aristocratic family as it disintegrated into so much dream-dust and reverie; as an audience, we were as well.

Jackie Marriott’s Lyubov seemed at times a Titania who ruled absolutely–over a land whose magic was slowly dissolving. Even so, we found ourselves holding our breath as time ceased, momentarily, on her first return to her childhood home.

Her siblings and kin were equally flighty and imaginative–and self-centered, boorish and abusive. Donnis Collins amazed as her bright daughter Anya, a sprite whose enchantment–and ability to love–hinged each moment on her companions’ capacity to amuse her. LaMark Wright’s boorish bluster as Gaev was, as a character observes, “all thunder and no lightning.” Chaunesti Lyon’s Varya, Lyubov’s adopted daughter, and Jennings’ Lopakhin enact one of the most awkward courtship scenes in history.

Indeed, the intricate interrelationships among the different members of the different classes here creates a palpable web of affections, obligations and ties that extend through generations.

A number of characters stumble over those threads. Lopakhin loves Lyubov–but still will act in a way to break most of the bonds between them before play’s end.

This cast and its director has given us a community with a concrete past, a swiftly tilting present and a most uncertain future. The hypnotic rhetoric of Thaddeus Edwards’ Petya, a graduate student, presages the revolutionary speeches of Marxists shortly to come. Geraud Staton’s brash valet, Yasha, seeks escape from a world he instinctually recognizes is no longer about to be. In the midst, Leigh Holmes’ shrill maid Dunyasha and Lamont Reed’s buffoon of a clerk in love, a Champagne Charlie named Yepikhodov, entertain–as the smallest leaves about to be swept before the whirlwind.

As Margaret Hamilton once famously said, what a world. The region is in the debt of these actors for giving us this one.

The Cherry Orchard

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Oct. 7


1/2 1776, Burning Coal Theatre–As a musical, 1776 remains an uneven but entertaining–and necessary–corrective to a host of monolithic myths about Our Founding Fathers. But after a rewarding opening where the Continental Congress’ immovable object meets the all-too-resistible force of delegate John Adams (David Henderson), a series of problems beset this production.

Start with uneven design. Though Chris Bernier’s metaphorical set hung an incomplete white wooden frame above an only partially painted stage, the spotlighted tote board recording those all-important votes stayed an ambiguous blur of faded dry-erase markings all night. Even murkier? Josh Reaves’ dysfunctional lights, which illuminated everything except the speaking actors in Act 2.

These seemed a match, though, for the obscure logic behind avant-garde director Matthew Earnest’s more flamboyant–and jarring–choices onstage.

Actors in wigs, white face powder and rouge before footlights make sense enough. But why direct John Moletress’s Thomas Jefferson as some pouting, preening matinee idol? Why drive Henderson’s Adams well into the realm of mania in the far-too-desperate “Is Anybody There?” And why muddy the plot twist on which the show–and America’s future–hangs through clumpy, rudimentary staging?

A number of sections try to redeem the rest, including the courtly dance of the conservative’s creed, “Cool, Cool, Deliberate Men,” and the grace of Carolyn McKenna and Henderson’s duets, “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “Till Then.” Robert Kaufman’s steely interpretation of delegate John Dickinson gives this show considerable savor. And since we’ve never seen “Molasses to Rum” effectively staged in any production of this musical, we couldn’t particularly begrudge its failure here.

By all means, this production is a quantum leap from the Coals’ first musical. But when the air leaks out of this many scenes, we ultimately look to the director. And when so many actors can’t individually project over an unamplified four-person band, more attention must yet be paid to the music. (St. Mary’s School, through Oct. 8.)

1/2 On Greed and Loneliness, Wordshed Productions–We’re worried: Though sections of Chris Chiron’s one-man show shine, the rest seem to signal a return to the contrived themes and dubious compilations of academic thesis concerts of yesteryear. Here the sum is frustratingly less than the parts thereof.

Through the first three works, Chiron’s acting does not disappoint. His overripe characters in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” exhibit the profane glee of miscreants and the mild, cutting disdain of the aged. He flames through the arch wordplay of a campy rendition of Marilyn Krysl’s “An Artichoke,” and his sharp interpretation of Samuel Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing #4”–easily the best work of the night–airs the grievance of a literary character convinced he has more authenticity than the author who created him.

But Chiron’s adaptation adds little to T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” except fresh warning that artists depict ennui on stage at the risk of duplicating it in the audience. A folksy and sufficiently refreshing take on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses–one having nothing to do with the evening’s stated themes–calls into question the artifice of the preceding frames, before meandering off to the unsatisfying end. (Swain Hall, UNC, through Oct. 1.)

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