Paying Thomas Wolfe no nevermind, playwright Samm-Art Williams is assuring audiences at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater that, yes, you can go home again. In this topsy-turvy age, in fact, you'd be half-batty not to.
Williams even calls his play "Home," and it certainly wants to be a celebration of the rural South, "land of sand flies and lightning bugs," fish fries and calico dresses. The writing is so good-natured at heart, in fact, that one feels like a bit of a cad to note that it often occupies that dangerous zone separating the simple from the simple-minded. As drama, it verges on the cartoonish, and its periodic swells of poetry remind one less of Walt Whitman than a Whitman sampler.
First produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in late 1979 and subsequently transferred to Broadway, "Home" pulled into Arena last night for its final engagement in a nationwide tour. There is something slightly portable about this production and the abstract timbered set that, for some mysterious reason, appears to have been shored up by old plumbing. The cast of three is proficient, but "Home," I suspect, is a play that really works only when the performances soar. These don't.
Williams recounts the coming of age of an ingenuous black farmer -- a certain Cephus Miles of Cross Roads, N.C. Although Cephus can feel the heartbeat of God when he holds a plant in his hand, he has the distinct impression that God is "on vacation in Miami," especially as things start turning sour in this southern Eden. His childhood sweetheart opts to better herself and goes North to college. Cephus himself is thrown in jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam. Then the family farm gets sold out from under him.
His five-year prison term over, Cephus responds to the lure of the northern lights (the big-city variety) and succumbs to easy drugs and shallow women. Finally, he makes his way back to Cross Roads and the girlfriend, who's apparently been through a few sobering experiences of her own. She sends him out to gather pecans for her famous pecan pie and the lights come up shiny bright. God, too, it would appear, is back home, minding the store once again.
All the while he is tracing Cephus' ups and downs, Williams is sketching verbal portraits of other characters along the route, spinning tall tales and painting some of the passing landscapes. The small cast alternately narrates and acts the material, story-theater style, relying on a few boxes and snatches of costumes to establish the various locales and their inhabitants. That's always been an intrinsically playful method, but here it also seems to be masking a fair multitude of sins.
All told, "Home" covers 20 years in 90 intermissionless minutes, which makes it easy to take, but also accounts for its skittish nature. There are few dramatic complexities here, just a hop, skip and a jump across time. Too self-conscious to be the theatrical equivalent of a primitive canvas, "Home" is also too naive to convince us it is really sounding the human heart. These days, joy is a rare enough commodity in our theater not to appreciate Williams' determined pursuit of it. But the uplift in "Home" is purchased rather facilely -- through the manipulation of the narrative, not an honest appraisal of its characters.
Cephus is played by Samuel L. Jackson, a likable actor with a lanky physique (not unlike the string beans Cephus himself tends with such care), an inextinguishable twinkle in his eyes and a sudden smile that banishes the big-city blues. What Jackson doesn't have is weight. Like a cork on rough seas, he bobs from event to event. But if he's adept at portraying buoyancy, it comes sometimes at the expense of Cephus' inner tumult.
The rest of the characters -- and there must be a couple dozen, at least -- are divided between Elain Graham and S. Epatha Merkerson. Lively actresses both, they demonstrate a flair for caricature, especially when they are playing men. But only Graham, with her depiction of Patti Mae, Cephus' sweetheart, was able to convince me that maybe a real person lurked inside.
For the most part, "Home" gallivants through a life -- sometimes with humor and spunk. Despite the cruel twists of fate, it doesn't have a chip on its shoulder. But it doesn't appear to have too much wisdom in its blithe heart, either.
HOME. By Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Horacena J. Taylor. Sets, Felix E. Cochren; costumes, Alvin B. Perry; lighting, William H. Grant III; with Elain Graham, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson. At Arena's Kreeger Theater for an open-ended run.