Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

A Sparkling Gem of the Ocean
at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Michele Shay and Khalil Kain
Completing its landmark commitment, over many theatrical seasons, to the produce all of the late two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (and long-time Seattle resident) August Wilson's plays, The Seattle Repertory closes its 2006-2007 season with a handsome, reverent and emotionally rich production of his penultimate play, Gem of the Ocean, directed in a palpably accomplished first directorial turn by Phylicia Rashad, who won raves and the 2005 Tony award for Best Actress in a play in the central role of 285-year-old sage Aunt Ester in Kenny Leon's Broadway production.

Gem of the Ocean takes us to the beginning of Wilson's 20th century cycle with the play set in 1904 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA. When Citizen Barlow, desperate, friendless, jobless and in spiritual turmoil, arrives at Aunt Ester's house claiming sanctuary from Caesar, the local constable, he sets into motion a series of events, including a journey to the City of Bones, which leads to startling discoveries and sets him on a course where duty leads to his redemption. The play is more terse and more action driven than others from Wilson's cycle. It has leavening and welcome laughter sprinkled amidst its heavy dramatic moments. And the haunting fantasia that is the lengthy City of Bones section is quite possibly the most remarkable and staggering portion of any Wilson play that I have seen. Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero, requested that Phylicia Rashad direct this production, and it proves to have been anything but a sentimental gesture. Rashad is (small surprise) an actor's director, and is also intimately acquainted with the work from her many performances as the spiritual advisor of the Hill District. Her production of Gem of the Ocean is one that would certainly have pleased the playwright.

As Aunt Ester, Michelle Shay is more physically prepossessing in appearance than Rashad herself, and one imagines the actress and director worked, obviously well, together to assure that Shay's interpretation of the role be distinctly her own. Shay comes on so strong right from the start that the spareness with which Wilson brings her into the story at first is a tad disconcerting. She inhabits the role with a weary strength, wry humor and radiant faith. Her Ester is deeply spiritual yet totally realistic and practical. And as good as Shay is, it is a credit to the rest of the company that they keep up with her every step of the way. Khalil Kain as Citizen Barlow impresses as he grows from being a frightened fugitive to an enlightened and redeemed man with a mission to do what is morally right. William Hall, Jr., long a solid staple of the Seattle Theatre community perhaps has the role of his career as Solly Two Kings, a former slave whose benevolent and amiable veneer conceals an avid contempt for social injustice, and the fearlessness to act on his beliefs.

Crystal Fox as Black Mary, Aunt Ester's housemate and caregiver, keeps her character's passions at a believable simmer until a stormy tiff with Aunt Ester over doing things her own way earns the actress a well deserved hand. As her brother Caesar, the ostensible villain of the piece, Stanley Wayne Mathis shows us enough of the character's emotional underpinnings and conflicted feelings to keep him from being a stock bad guy, and actually engenders some sympathy for him. As traveling salesman Rutherford Selig, Todd Jefferson Moore makes this sole white character in the story a low-key charmer and the kind of man who has your back, no matter what your race. Allie Woods as Ester's other household companion Eli rushed through so much of his dialogue early on in what seemed a case of opening night nerves. Once his delivery slowed down and he relaxed, he was on the money as the soft-spoken but opinionated Eli.

John Iacovelli's impressively detailed and realistic scenic design is everything you could ask for, Allen Lee Hughes' lighting design is an outstanding achievement, and Susan E. Mickey's costumes artfully delineate the different personalities of the characters. The haunting and evocative musical compositions and arrangements are the work of Kathryn Bostic.

Gem of the Ocean runs through May 6, 2007 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, at the corner of Second Ave. and Mercer St., in Seattle Center. For more information go on-line to

Photo: © Chris Bennion 2007

- David-Edward Hughes