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A CurtainUp Review

I love the land, the soft beautiful black sod crushing beneath my feet. A fertile pungent soil. A soil to raise strong children on. I love the rain. That feeds the earth. It's especially nice in May. — Cephus (part of a lyrical opening monologue in which he shares his love for the farm).
Kevin T. Carroll and January LaVoy
(photo by Richard Termine)
The Signature Theatre Company could not have picked a sweeter play to be part of its season-long celebration of the historic Negro Ensemble Company. For the most part audiences at the Peter Norton Space will be delighted by the three terrific actors, playing more than twenty-five characters, who are bringing a joyful exuberance to Samm-Art Williams's nearly 30 year-old play.

Despite being vehemently nave as well as perverse about the vicissitudes of life and the exigencies of human nature, the play's bucolic message is no less disarming with the passage of time. Even without the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critic's Circle nominations and citations it garnered in 1980 after it opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway following its initial run at NEC, Home is, in many ways, self-validating.

Lyrically mixing prose and poetry, Home is not exactly free of pretension, nor is it meant to be. But it is filled with the kind of home-spun humor and tender sentiment calculated to touch us without becoming in the least maudlin.

Raised in North Carolina, Williams uses the state for the play's opening and closing setting. A rustic impression is conveyed by set designer Shaun Motley. A wooden porch is the most identifiable structure among the wooden slats, steps and levels that remain constant during the action and serves the play effectively (as does Michael Chybowski's lighting) despite changes in location.

Within this design, the play's skilled blend of acting, movement and a bit of music is accommodated with a gentle grace. For this we can thank the direction by Ron OJ Parson who keeps the pastorally-textured story moving along its largely narrative path.

The story, which takes place from the late 1950s to the present, is punctuated with episodes of gritty gaiety that follow and define the quixotic journey from adolescence to adulthood of Cephus Miles, a young farmer who must learn lessons about the true values of life.

Disillusioned with his life on the farm his grandfather and uncle have nurtured, and then depressed when his first love Pattie Mae forsakes him for college and another life, Cephus finds himself aching to leave home. But Cephus, influenced by the thou shall not kill teachings of his Sunday school teacher, is imprisoned for five years for desecrating the American flag when he tries to evade the draft at the start of the Viet Nam war. During that time he is deprived of his farm for back taxes.

Lured by the promise of fast life, his seduction by loose women and drugs in the big city, Cephus soon loses control. The playwright, however, believes in miracles and makes them happen quite naturally. The improbability of the play's denouement is hardly a factor. Even God, who Cephus believes has been on vacation in Miami, returns after a sojourn of fifteen years to his home in Crossroads, North Carolina and in time for a happy ending.

Just as Cervantes loved his errant but valiant knight, Don Quixote, Williams obvious loves Cephus. He restores a kind of simple nobility to Cephus after his journey in the cruel, unjust world and eventually leads him home.

Cephus is played with a wholesome robust romanticism by Kevin T. Carroll. It's a portrait of a remarkable, if undereducated man who faces his ordeals and disappointments head on and, as often as he can, with a sense of humor— a born storyteller with his tales of cemetery crap-shoots, hog stealing and late-nite fish fries. Carroll, who was so excellent in the role of the harmonica-playing Canewell in August Wilson's Seven Guitars at Signature, is giving an endearing performance, most notable for the nuanced narrative that gives life to his story-telling.

Tracey Bonner and January LaVoy have the concerted task to serve as a Greek chorus as well as to portray multiple male and female characters. The device works beautifully considering the play's fanciful construct, and the ability of these nicely contrasted actors to transform themselves.

LaVoy, who played the dour waitress Risa in Wilson's Two Trains Running at the Signature, most significantly plays the role of Cephus' true love Pattie Mae Wells, a character whose return brings about the play's most startling revelation. Bonner, who is making her Signature debut, is a bundle of energy and ingenuity as she jumps from character to character, but none more affecting than as Cephus' friend Tommy through a letter sent from the jungles of Viet Nam.

While Williams assures us that there is no place like home for Cephus, it is hard not to think about all those who, in the leaving of it, didn't make the better choice.

By Samm-Art Williams
Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Cast: Kevin T. Carroll, January LaVoy, Tracey Bonner
Set Design: Shaun Motley
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
Soundscape and Vocal Arrangements: Kathryn Bostic
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes no intermission
The Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenue)
(212) 244 PLAY (7529)
All regularly-priced single tickets ($65) are available for $20 (made possible by Time-Warner) during the regular runs of each production for the entire season.
Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM; Wednesday Saturday at 8 PM; Matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2 PM. Added shows 12/17/24/31 at 2 PM.
Opened 12/07/08 Ends 01/04/09
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/06/08
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