'Every tongue confess' at Arena Stage: A newborn play with room to grow

Phylicia Rashad stars in 'Every Tongue Confess,' written by Marcus Gardley and playing at the Arena Stage theater.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:52 PM

Conceived as a hall for the birthing of new plays, Arena Stage's newest space, the Kogod Cradle, warmly embraces that essential function with its inaugural presentation: the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's folkloric exploration of hate crimes in the American South, "every tongue confess."

The symbolic importance of this moment in Arena's evolution should not go unstressed: The company is pursuing a hyper-ambitious path as it stretches its legs in its gloriously re-engineered surroundings in Southwest Washington, courtesy of a $135 million makeover. So perhaps it is fitting that the first original work in this beautiful Cradle feels as if it's still finding its way, too.

Gardley's play, bolstered by a top-notch cast that includes Phylicia Rashad, Jason Dirden and Leslie Kritzer, tries through lyrical speeches, magical spirituality and densely interlocked subplots to locate the redemptive potential in a horrific set of circumstances: the serial burning of black churches in the Alabama of the mid-1990s.

The playwright's theatrical canvas is a dense one, and though he manages at times to fill it with stories of energy and poetic vitality - the relationship between Rashad's Mother Sister and Dirden's young Shadrack being the sharpest - too few of his characters possess the heart-piercing intensity of his apparent role model, August Wilson. They remain instead vaguely literary constructs. As a result, the climax of "every tongue confess" never achieves the desired gut-wrenching effect.

As staged with stark simplicity by director Kenny Leon, the drama takes place in the backwoods of Alabama where blacks and whites of mostly modest means coexist and sometimes intermingle. A Greek chorus of devoted churchgoers (the excellent Crystal Fox, Eugene Lee and E. Roger Mitchell), seated on wooden pews, become aware of the intensifying heat in the building; they soon realize the church is ablaze, and they are trapped. Rather than panic, they console themselves - thanks to the extrasensory perception that a dramatist can confer - with the story of how this cataclysm came to pass.

The boundaries between this world and the next have been dissolved in "every tongue confess," as if the Divinity itself were an active community member.

Enveloped in the narrative are various permutations of the supernatural: a town elder with second sight; a comatose woman whose spirit floats in and out of her ex-husband's consciousness; the ghost of an itinerant blues singer who wanders into Mother Sister's cottage. The sense created here is of a moral universe aching for correction, one in which the sin of racism knows no particular color. That the world seeks a more righteous path is embodied most urgently in Lee's Jeremiah, a gravedigger who is given the task by clairvoyant Mother Sister of paving a road and thereby "preparing the way."

The darkness of "every tongue confess" is illuminated by the flames of those churches, and though the piece is far from a whodunit, the question of what may have sparked the crimes hangs over the play. It gives nothing away to say that the prime suspect is the local ne'er-do-well, Stoker Pride (Jim Ireland), who lives on the white side of town with both a rifle and chip on his shoulder. After his ex-wife, played by Kritzer, falls into a coma, their daughter Benny (Autumn Hurlbert), who has been traumatized into silence, comes to live with him.

Yes, there's a lot to keep track of in "every tongue confess," with a turn of the plot to accompany practically every mellifluous turn of phrase. As counterbalance, Leon and set designer Tom Lynch opt for a spare, rustic palette, mounting the production on a wooden floor with a few sticks of furniture and only one elaborate scenic touch: an abstract tree made of intersecting rods that dangles overhead like a chandelier.

The 200-seat Cradle, with its basket-weave walls, luxurious leg room and excellent sight lines, is itself an instant star, a grand platform for the showcasing of a new play. Acoustically, it's a pleasure, too: A spiritual sung late in the evening by the gifted Hurlbert reverberates with tonal crispness.

The depth of acting talent here is a decided bonus. Actors such as Fox and Lee, with their wealth of experience in Wilson's canon, have the full tool belts for Gardley's often elevated language. Ireland brings an apt country gruffness to Stoker, and Dirden, as a teenager eager to taste adventure and urbanity, offers his usual high caliber of authenticity.

Kritzer's character is not as convincingly defined as some of the others; she's the girlfriend of a cocaine dealer one moment and an anxious guardian angel the next. She does yeoman service making these disparate characteristics coherent. As a spectral visitor to Mother Sister, Jonathan Peck proves to be a sturdy testifier to the atrocities that decades of racial hatred can engender. Best of all is Rashad, whose refined comedic instincts ground the play and ensure that the piece doesn't levitate into pretentiousness.

In its final stages, "every tongue confess" picks up some emotional steam, and the clear portrait begins to emerge of a community that needs to look inward, for an understanding of what has unleashed a terrible evil. That the steps to this revelation could be laid out more effectively does not by a long shot nullify the dramatist's imaginative exertion. It just means there's room for a bit more of it.

every tongue confess by Marcus Gardley. Directed by Kenny Leon. Costumes, Ilona Somogyi; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; composer, Dwight Andrews; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; fight director, Joe Isenberg; wigs, Chuck LaPointe. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Jan. 2 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

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