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|A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
With utility poles that shrink as they approach an iridescent sky, and a stage filled with dirt, the smell of which wafts into the audience, Charles Kirby's outdoor set for Deep Down is, in a small way, as striking and evocative as Bob Crowley's much applauded one for Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center. Also similar to Twelfth Night, Bill Sims Jr. establishes a bluesy feel in Deep Down with a musical performance that begins as an overture and continues throughout the play's many interludes. (It alone is well worth the price of admission.) I begin with these perhaps odd comparisons for a couple of reasons. First, because they remind us that it doesn't always take a great deal to achieve a lot. Second, because they reconfirm that no amount of decoration can overcome a performance that lacks credibility.
Doug Grissom's play may have a valuable contribution to make to the discourse on race relations in America. It explores the footprints of slavery that remain in the consciousness of African Americans, and the ways in which whites relegate the subject to the coffin of "history" while oftentimes continuing to act on its prejudices. Set in 1963 in the rural South, it seems both dated and distant. Perhaps it requires that much perspective in order to be given consideration, yet neither the disjointed story, overburdened with the obvious, nor the lop-sided cast succeeds in helping him artfully make his point.
Ned (Cristopher Murney) is a weirdo. A farmer who is ridiculed by the town folk, and who dislikes and distrusts them anyway, he has hired a black ex-convict, Daniel (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), to help him dig on his farm. Dig for what? Just dig, Daniel is told. (We soon learn Ned thinks some possessions of the explorer Hernando Desoto are buried on his property.) Also on the farm is Hannah (Catherine Zambri, who is also one of the producers of the show), Ned's impudent daughter who wants to be anywhere but on the farm and who, predictably, becomes immediately fascinated by the new hired hand. When it becomes obvious that the relics Daniel is digging up are not Desoto's but rather the ruins of a slave camp (metal collars, fetters and the like), the anticipated divergence materializes: what is "in the past" for the (nonetheless still overtly racist) Ned and Hannah is a painfully fresh part of Daniel's essence.
The story flies in a score of directions: Daniel's interaction with Ned, Hannah's "walks down to the river" with Daniel, the father-daughter relationship, the town folk's outrage at Ned and Daniel's idea of opening a museum on slavery with the relics they have unearthed, Daniel's interest in a Reconstructionist state senator from the area, and so on. There is much talk about digging, both physical and emotional. ("Don't plumb my depths," Ned warns.) Unfortunately, the parts never resolve into any satisfying whole. We are left with a few vivid moments, but not much of a lasting memory. A curious epilogue doesn't help.
Only one actor seems to be fully engaged. Santiago-Hudson is just right as Daniel, capturing the essence of this ex-convict who arrives simply seeking a viable substitute for his time in prison and soon confronts both pride and prejudice. He is at once a plain, physical man and a complex thoughtful one. He is as convincingly enthusiastic as he is indignant. Neither Murney nor Zambri measure up. Both seem lost in their Southern accents; neither seems comfortable with the casting. Murney's characterization is one-dimensional and incredible; Zambri, often affecting some odd sort of southern Valley Girl speak, lacks emotion much less passion.
John Lawler's direction is disciplined. He ably moves the three actors about the stage, shifting between scenes fluidly. Fight scenes are carefully and tightly staged, and the digging and uncovering of buried "treasures" is somehow choreographed with perfection.
Deep Down is set in the 1960's but treads in terrain that continues to be germane. Billed as a "New American Play," it should be applauded for its unvarnished look at troubling uniquely American attitudes. How much better that look would have been with a sharper focus.