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The Refuge Plays

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 11, 2023

Daniel J. Watts and Lance Coadie Williams
Photo by : Joan Marcus
Think "family play"–I Remember Mama or Life with Father or even August: Osage County. Stretch it out a couple of generations. Then make the family poor and Black and transport them to the backwoods of southern Illinois, and you might have something like The Refuge Plays, Nathan Alan Davis's eloquent exploration of familial conflicts, traditions, and resiliency. Really three one-acts, the Roundabout Theatre Company / New York Theatre Workshop joint production at the Laura Pels is three and a half hours, and it's not too long.

Getting oriented takes a while. What year are we in? The whole family seems to be wearing time-nonspecific hand-me-downs (costumes are by Emilio Sosa), and Arnulfo Maldonado's nothing-special set depicts an exceedingly modest two-room rural home, cluttered with battered mid-century furniture lit by gas lamps, not an appliance in sight. Only gradually, what with talk of Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" and the computers at the local library, do we gather that we're in the recent past. The Playbill, in fact, pins the time as "decades beginning now and stretching far back into family history," but Davis is frustratingly hazy about what decades those are.

He's also into whimsical character names. The (nameless) family's matriarch, Early (Nicole Ari Parker), we've met before: She's basically Estelle Getty on "Golden Girls," aged, spry, and sassy. Her daughter Gail (Jessica Francis Dukes) is the family caretaker, harried but decisive. Gail's daughter Joy (Ngozi Anyanwu) is the peacemaker, or tries to be. And Joy's son, the teenage Ha-Ha (JJ Wynder-Wilkins), is a lovely, polite young man. In fact, all of Davis's young people are lovely and polite; it's one distinctive thing about The Refuge Plays. Another is the ghosts. The ghost of Gail's husband, Walking Man (Jon Michael Hill), is skulking about, and so are Clydette (Lizan Mitchell) and Reginald (Jerome Preston Bates), Early's parents. They don't just loom, they do unghostly things, like predicting death and loaning Ha-Ha a couple hundred dollars, so he can go to a neighboring town and get laid.

This bothers me. It bothered me when August Wilson used to do it. It's one thing to introduce supernatural elements into the storytelling, but when you force your audience to accept those elements, when the story won't lurch forward without them, you're imposing a worldview a large part of that audience, me included, won't accept. Still, Davis's writing, like Wilson's, is refreshingly lyrical, and director Patricia McGregor sustains an appealingly ethereal, nothing-here-is-to-be-taken-quite-literally mood, so we go along with it.

It's an easygoing first act: a lot of family history spilling forth, Gail's mortality somewhat up for grabs (Walking Man wants her with him in the afterlife), and Ha-Ha bringing home a prospective girlfriend, Symphony (Mallori Taylor Johnson), who is, surprise, lovely and polite. There are laugh lines, and the dialogue frequently approaches the poetic. Walking Man, describing the hereafter to Gail: "There's songs. Songs like the songs you know, but you know them even better. You know all their secrets." The first play ends serenely; even death feels benign.

Then we travel back 45 years or so, with the living, twentysomething Walking Man sparring with his father Crazy Eddie (the always-splendid Daniel J. Watts). He's not called Walking Man for nothing; we're given to believe his wanderlust has carried him on foot to Alaska, and from there far south enough to visit penguins. Never mind that this would take 20 years–is it geographically possible, or is Walking Man just telling tales? He doesn't know what he's searching for; when he finds out, it's another instance of Davis dispensing with logic.

Meanwhile, Eddie's good-times brother Dax (Lance Coadie Williams) is visiting the brood en route to Paris, and trying to hook a water pump up to the house. He's not a necessary character, but Williams makes a meal of him. The gentle Walking Man, meantime, having learned his origin story from a couple of specter relatives, flies into a murderous rage, one of a couple of character arcs I don't quite buy. And he meets his future wife. It's a charming scene, and Gail has some more rich Davis lines: "The ocean must love the Mississippi so, so much, because the Mississippi just rushes into its arms again and again and again. It can't never give enough. And that's such a song, ain't it?"

After all that, you wouldn't expect a romantic comedy, would you? But that's largely what the third play is: the courtship story of Early and Crazy Eddie, sort of a Talley's Folly in the backwoods. Eddie is back from the war, wounded, and Early is nursing the infant Walking Man. Again, what time are we in? Here, too, Sosa's costumes are no help–Early's white midi is more "That Girl" than The Best Years of Our Lives. But Watts and Parker have terrific chemistry, and their back-and-forth, with Early warming up quickly from hostile to inquisitive to demanding to willing, constitutes an evening's entertainment in itself. And as they tell each other what may or may not be tall-tale stories about their pasts, we're rooting for them to combine. There is, throughout, a lot of love on that stage.

The acting is solid or better, with Watts's turn-on-the-charm Eddie and Robinson's yearning Symphony especially endearing, and Parker's Early and Dukes's Gail play multiple generations so convincingly, you may be checking your program to make sure they're the same actors. Why The Refuge Plays? Well, this off-the-grid shack becomes a source of refuge for everyone who visits it. And Davis's warm, affectionate evening is something of a refuge from the clank and clatter and confusion of a lot of contemporary playwrighting.

The Refuge Plays
Through November 12, 2023
Roundabout Theatre Company / New York Theatre Workshop
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street just west of Sixth Avenue, New York NY
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