"What I wouldn't give to have a woman look at me that way again," says Jared as he lies immobile in an iron lung, his "mechanized Mackinaw," remembering how approving eyes followed him when he walked into a Harlem bar.
As "Nevis Mountain Dew" opens, it is Jared's 50th birthday. His wife, two sisters and their male friends are trying to raise spirits with a potent local rum. The old mountain dew turns out to be a truth serum that strips away pretenses with each swig.
The Rep, Inc., the black theater company now in its 10th season, is staging Steve Carter's play about a West Indian family living in Queens, N.Y., in the 1950s. Jared, victim of polio, is not the only one imprisoned in the iron lung. So are his sisters, wife, and the men they love. Will someone pull the plug and free all of them from a bitter existence?
Carter's play has its bitterly poignant moments but sells out to a melodramatic denouement. There is none of the philosophical probing of "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" in which another paralyzed patient raises the question of a human being's right to determine if he wants to continue living under certain conditions.
But "Nevis Mountain Dew" does have some well-crafted scenes, particularly in the first and second acts. Carter has a keen ear for the rhythms of natural speech and an observant eye for character.
The Rep Co. does well by Carter's full-bodied characters. Doug Brown, who must act only from the neck up as he lies in the iron lung, projects the powerful presence of Jared with his deep, resonant voice. He is able supported by Gloria Davis-Hill as the wife; Jay Michel Stone as the doting sister; Kentworth Jackman as her frustrated lover, and Reggie Colbert, with a comic flair as the boyfriend of the second sister.
One of the best moments comes when the cast returns to the stage to take bows. Brown emerges from the iron lung to appear as a white-suited dude -- one who would clearly command all eyes when he entered a Harlem bar.
NEVIS MOUNTAIN DEW, by Steve Carter. Directed by Jaye Stewart; set design by Steward; light design by William Pettus; costumes by Ketia Semia.
Presented by The Rep, In., with Doug Brown, Jay Michel Stone, Denise Asparagus, Gloria Davis-Hill Reggie Colbert, Kentworth Jackman, and Phillip Brogden.
At The Rep Theatre, 3710 Georgia Ave., NW, performances at 8 p.m., Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.