"Home," by Samm-Art Williams, seems more of a poem than a play. At Arena's Kreeger Theater, The Negro Ensemble Company is making the most of the poetry while doing the best it can by the drama.

Williams' yarn, which spins full circle in an hour and a half, concerns the odyssey of one Cephus Miles -- from farm boy in Cross Roads, North Carolina, to imprisoned Vietnam draft resister in Raleigh, to wino in New York City, and finally to Cross Roads again. The story often takes flight through country humor and poetry -- Williams has a keen ear for word-music -- but seems to end, dramatically, in an emergency landing. It's a well-paced show, though -- and well worth the ride.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Cephus, while Elain Graham and S. Epatha Merkerson are sometimes his Greek chorus, and at other times his friends, lovers or foes. In a series of quick vignettes, Graham becomes Cephus' Cross Roads sweetheart, his Aunt Hannah, Uncle Sam and a Jehovah's Witness; among Merkerson's changes are Bible thumper, prison guard, hooker and welfare case-worker.

All this might have been a confused piece of business, but the actors, under the direction of Horacena J. Taylor, lend Williams' free-flowing conceits the clarity they demand. Jackson, who seems a bit oratorical at first, spouting "I love the land" as though it were a maxim, loosens up as his material improves. Graham and Merkerson, especially, prove themselves virtuoso performers.

The play is freshest when evoking the tobacco fields of North Carolina ("blisters, blisters, hands bleed, hands bleed") or the ethos of the city ("Scotch it, champagne it, tossed salad with Russian") through the pulse and music of words.

In the bargain, Williams has peppered the play with funny stories -- about Cephus shooting craps in a graveyard or Patti Mae, his sweetheart, getting run out of church -- that make for authenticity. He even includes a primer on how to clean and fry a catfish.

Problems arise in the plot, which moves ahead with the nuance of a comic book. Without dramatic development, it seems cartoony for Cephus to spend five years in jail for conscientiously objecting, get corrupted by the evil city, suddenly recover, and return home to reconcile with Patti Mae, who'd thrown him over for a lawyer from Boston. The play's final moments, with Cephus heading out to chop some wood so Patti Mae can bake him a pie, are just not credible.

HOME -- At the Kreeger Theater tthrough December 6.