A new voice in area theater carries a vibrant message. The voice is that of playwright Jarrin Davis, auteur of the new Zebra Stage, which is showcasing his drama, "Son of a Distant Moon," at Arlington's Theatre on the Run for its premiere production.
Davis, a Capitol Hill resident, is a native of Omaha who has lived in the District for several years and is best known locally for directing several recent productions of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington.
"Son of a Distant Moon" is a compelling look at the dynamics in an extended African American family, forces that bind and separate its members. The play was developed at New York's Negro Ensemble Company and workshopped in New York and Philadelphia before opening at Theatre on the Run.
Davis not only wrote the play but also directed its run here. Because he is artistic director of Zebra Stage, this is truly one man's vision. A dark vision it is.
Ella and Emma are quite different sisters. Ella, troubled and unfocused, has returned home from a two-year absence. Her devoutly religious and otherworldly sister, Emma, has been caring for Ella's son, Durell, 11, who resents his mother's abandonment and sudden return.
Bobo, their weak-willed brother, lives there with Ruby, spirited, determined and pregnant. Hovering around the outskirts of the family like a malignant cloud is Willy, Durell's father and Ella's guiding force, much to the chagrin of the other women.
As the story unfolds, the characters are trapped in an unbreakable pattern, although that's not fully evident until events run their course. Plot details are not as clearly revealed as are the finely etched portraits of people unable to escape a steely trap of their own making.
A significant back story and much that occurs outside the home is revealed little by little, sometimes only implied. Both color the actions we do see and foreshadow the gripping climax.
Davis has created an intriguing set of character studies and a suspenseful, edgy tale, a unique combination. There are surprises, too. For instance, one who seems for much of the play to be a peripheral, albeit vivid, individual may turn out to be the truly pivotal character.
Davis also has assembled an unusually effective and cohesive cast of actors who wear the history of their characters' relationships like a second skin and interact with one other with no apparent sense of self-consciousness.
Dionne Audain is serene as the ethereal Emma, her calm exterior barely masking a deeply damaged spirit. Chamblee Christian, as the prodigal Ella, bursts into the quiet home radiating energy and internal rage.
As the vivacious and strong-willed Ruby, Cody Jones provides comic relief with her unvarnished self-esteem and moments of intense drama. Her unborn child is a lifeline to a second chance that she believes will make up for the shortcomings of her mother and sisters.
The script's weaknesses are not fatal primarily because of the strong acting. Willy and Bobo represent opposite sides of an unfortunately stereotypical view of black men.
Willy, masterfully portrayed by Felix Stevenson, is powerful and thug-like, while Frank Britton's Bobo is ineffectual. Young Jeffrey Wise plays Durell against heavy odds.
Durell is a bright and promising kid, and we are supposed to believe that he runs out of the home and instantly opts for the "gangsta" life the moment he sees his mother. When he is still not home at 3 a.m., the adults act as if it were a worrisome development rather than a major crisis.
Dan Olds's solid and meticulously crafted design for the family living room is a gift to the actors, providing them a setting with the feel of a real home, neat but slightly worn, and adding to the sense of real life observed.
"Son of a Distant Moon" runs through Jan. 30 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.