Next to the desk where I write, there’s a photograph of my great-great-grandparents. They keep an eye on me while I am working; their sharp but loving gazes from one century ago constantly assessing their subject, your host. I’d say they always bid me tell the truth: good companions, in short, to have around in my particular line of work. The photograph’s a copy. The original is somewhere in a house just outside Reidsville, bordered by a large, dark frame. You could call the frame forgiving, I suppose, since it hides some of the picture’s imperfections. It’s edges are discolored in places, crumbling away entirely in others, but the frame mostly keeps these out of view.

We could say much the same for Duke Theater Previews’ production of On the March to the Sea , Gore Vidal’s account of a wealthy white rural Georgian family’s trial by fire during Sherman’s famous march toward the end of the Civil War.

According to Playbill, this “world premiere” which closed March 6 was actually a retooling of an unsuccessful script from 1961–which itself was an adaptation of a television script from six years before.

Director Warner Shook complemented this historic script with a performance concept of similar vintage: a “readers theatre” staging in which actors, seated in a row and not in costume on an otherwise empty stage, brought scripts forward to one of four music stands, addressing their lines directly to the audience.

Readers theatre emphasizes the written and the spoken word–albeit by stripping away almost every other part of the theatrical enterprise. Given the obvious literary gifts on display at the center of Vidal’s text, the concept seems particularly felicitous.

But nearer the margins, even a frame this sympathetic doesn’t always conceal substantial difficulties in the script.

The initial scene veritably hops around the Hinks plantation, introducing us to the central cast of characters. While the brevity of such cascading encounters would clearly animate a TV screen, it’s hard to imagine how such sudden changes could be executed on stage–at least in a full production. But here, through the magic of reader’s theatre, scenes can nearly jump to the moon and back without an awkward technical segue on stage–almost.

Were that the only problem with the opening, it might pass without comment. But when initial scenes are this shortchanged, they also don’t adequately disclose the characters or their situations.

The identity of Mrs. Blair and the significance of her relationship with Mrs. Hinks remain a riddle until the middle of the second act. In this historical theater of the imagination, it’s ironic that the various characters’ pasts at times remain hard–or impossible–to picture.

The present has its problems too. One moment, young Grayson Hinks is about to elope with fair Amelia. The next, he’s endorsing, with absolutely no surprise, his commission in the Confederate Army. As hinge moments in a character’s life go, this one’s a biggie–but it remained bewilderingly unexplored in this production.

Unsurprisingly, evil gets the best lines when the Union forces’ Colonel Thayer half-heartedly wrestles with his conscience over the final disposition of the Hinks and their plantation. Though Vidal strains to coin a new and vivid term to summarize the inhumanities of war, Thayer’s chosen phrase, “the ranks of the cruel,” never truly satisfies.

Though generally effective as Thayer, Chris Noth followed Vidal’s script when it occasionally strayed into the realm of melodrama and, at one point, the outright maudlin.

The reproach of Mr. Grayson, a landowner ruined by following Mr. Hinks’ advice, is probably the strongest scene in the play. But we ultimately wait in vain for Hinks to realize the totality of all that will be ultimately subtracted from his home–or to repent for the choices that have directly led to those subtractions.

While Hinks suffers, he never agonizes on the road not chosen. From his view, there never was another choice. It’s the unexamined life, in short–a circumstance that ultimately makes his character far less interesting than he might, or should, have been.

Vidal’s acerbic oratory at the heart of March probes the true nature of duty and loyalty. Ultimately though, this work bears more flaws than even the most indulgent of frames can hide.

Memo to everyone who raved at Sarah Jones ‘ show last Tuesday night at Duke: Drop everything and get to Playmakers for their current production of Yellowman .

For as it turns, the multiplicative Ms. Jones has nothing on Kathryn Hunter Williams and Sam Wellington, two accomplished actors who fill the Paul Green Theatre stage with a community of characters long before a harrowing but rewarding night of theater is done.

Dael Orlandersmith’s lyrical, controversial text treads boldly onto turf American theater has been noticeably chary of up to now. By now no shortage of plays has laid hands on racism between Americans of European descent and African-Americans. But who else has probed the internal racism, the self-hatred and the fallout of what’s been termed “the color complex”–the matrix of intellectual, moral and social assumptions and prejudices within the African-American community about blacks of varying skin color?

Are such issues still germane? Judge for yourself.

In 1947, Kenneth Clark’s famous study (cited in Brown v. Board of Education) found that two-thirds of African-American children chose white dolls over black dolls when asked which one was “good” or “looked nice.”

In 1996, Frankye Riley found–here in Durham–that 49 percent of African-American children still thought the black doll “looked bad.”

In Yellowman we follow Alma and Eugene through the exuberance of childhood in the 1960s and ’70s. We watch, frequently with held breath, as a community whose members have already judged the content of their character by the color of their skin–and their parents’ last name, address and occupation–does its best to pass the grim venom of its biases on to the next generation.

Alma’s disgust at the powerlessness of her mother and her forbears is poetic, cruel, heartbreaking–and completely understandable. A scene in which she prays to be lighter so that her father will love her is one of the most wrenching sights I’ve sat through in this or any other year–a tribute to the craft of Williams, director Trezana Beverley and the playwright.

With Wellington, the beast of an inhuman prejudice unleashed by liquor manifests itself appropriately–in snarls, barks and roars. And fight choreographers should particularly take note: Wellington’s visceral accomplishment here (with movement coach Craig Turner) single-handedly conveying a father-son fight to the finish establishes a new standard by which all future on-stage battles must be judged.

A world does its best to tear these childhood sweethearts apart. Threatened by so many factors from without and within, we watch, riveted, as both struggle to maintain their balance while walking the razor-thin boundary line of difference, without a net. This, dear friends, is the essence of Drama.

For these reasons we take distinct pleasure in conferring our third five-out-of-five star review since 2003 upon Yellowman, and our highest recommendations which accompany it.

What–if anything–elevates The Man Who above the lurid carny ten-in-ones of yesteryear; those tented sideshows whose painted canvases crudely depicted the strangest living oddities that lurked within?

For starters, there’s the unanticipated difficulty in determining who the real freaks are before us: the patients or their minders.

Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s 1994 work is not the first stage adaptation of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’ pensive chronicle of assorted, colorful brain dysfunctions and the medical community’s responses to them. Michael Nyman (of The Piano) scored a chamber opera version that premiered in 1986.

The difference that may most immediately strike viewers familiar with the book involves the muting–perhaps that word should be “erasure”–of the author’s voice. No narrator guides us through the disconnected episodes of this “theatrical research”–an appropriate term for a work which defies a number of traditional dramatic expectations. Without explanation, Brook and Estienne present scenes of various interactions between clinicians and the institutionalized. When they conclude, we move on. Any overt analysis, critique or praise must be provided by the audience. In short, we’re on our own.

It’s a singularly gutsy move for dramatists, particularly in a period where “the theater of the correct” regularly shows us the failings of our society–and then dictates what we should think about what we’ve just seen.

Starting with the opening scene, we are repeatedly impressed by the struggles of the patients to maintain a sense of human dignity despite their cognitive difficulties.

We are just as struck by the disregard with which their doctors routinely threaten this dignity through humiliating, childish, diagnostic “games” that confront them with their limitations. Decades into institutionalization, what benefit is served each day when an orderly confronts a woman who believes it’s still 1964 with her reflection in a mirror–shattering, without warning, her belief that she’s still 22?

A strong quartet of actors not only embody a panoply of mental disorders; at their best, they vividly convey the individuals who are struggling with them. In turn, they manage to reveal a few humane disorders in their doctors as well.

It’s good to see Mark Jeffrey Miller get a workout here as a Frenchman completely baffled by a doctor’s odd requests, and later as a man unmoored from language, who protests when a doctor violates his sense of self. It’s particularly refreshing to note Dana Marks’ triumphant, brief return to the region, between productions in New York. Her characters were sharply drawn; her portrayal of a woman with Tourettes’ Syndrome was an achievement.

Clearly Marks has grown considerably since her undergraduate days at N.C. State.

Newcomer Gigi DeLizza impresses in several vivid episodes, particularly as a woman lost in time. Though Adam Samieri’s accent seems out of place for the suburbs of Paris, his characterizations are strong.

**1/2 The Play About the Baby, Ghost & Spice Productions–Memo to Edward Albee (and cc to director Rachel Klem): Whenever characters this smug direct so many leading questions to an audience, you’re not only betting that the patrons won’t be able come up with answers more interesting than yours. You’re also hoping they won’t feel so patronized that they actually start sharing those answers in mid-play.

Both bets looked pretty shaky the night we saw this cynical–and poorly disguised–two-act sermon on the moral imperative of evil. At this point, Albee clearly cannot imagine a human identity apart from its pathology: His repetitious script boils down to one question, “If you have no wounds, how can you know if you’re alive?”

So he sets up–and promptly knocks back down–two straw characters: the condescendingly-named Boy and Girl, a 20-something couple whose life experiences (including childbirth and gang confrontation) just don’t measure up in the playwright’s Big Book of Human Suffering. Albee therefore sends his surrogates, the transparently named Woman and Man, to administer the gratuitous Education in Pain and Loss.

Lenore Field sparkles and seduces before the steelier traits of Woman stand revealed, but John Murphy’s Man is too thin a variation on the talkative bully we’ve all seen before. Joe Brack has the thankless role of Boy, while Heather Hackford’s Girl moves when sheltering her character’s partner and responding to her elders’ threats.

But Albee wears out his welcome–early–when we the audience feel as lectured to as the younger couple in this self-congratulatory script. (Common Ground Theatre, through March 12. $12-$10. 698-3870.) x

Byron Woods can be reached at