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Gem of the Season 

August Wilson's 'Gem of the Ocean' triumphs at Ashland

Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) takes Citizen Barlow (Kevin Kenerly) on a journey to the City of Bones in Oregon Shakespeare Company's production of Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jenny Graham.
  • Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) takes Citizen Barlow (Kevin Kenerly) on a journey to the City of Bones in Oregon Shakespeare Company's production of Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jenny Graham.

There's a little more than a month left in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, and a couple of the plays I liked and wrote about are still running ( As You Like It, Stoppard's On the Razzle ), as well as a few I will write about later in the column (Lisa Loomer's Distracted ) and next week ( Romeo & Juliet , and The Tempest , which end Oct. 6.) But I've just seen the production I would favor over all others. If I were closer than four hours away, I'd see it several more times before it closes on Oct. 27. It's August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean .

Before his untimely death in 2005, August Wilson completed his 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle," one play about the African American experience set in each decade of the 20th century, an unprecedented achievement in American theatre. Gem of the Ocean is chronologically the first, set in 1904, but it was the next to last he wrote. New York Times critic Ben Brantley calls it the "touchstone" of his work, and it is that, on many levels. Stylistically, it's most like Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911, and Wilson's favorite of his previous plays (his least favorite is his most lauded, Fences, which OSF will do next season). But in other ways, Gem of the Ocean is singular: It may well be the most assured and resonant of his plays, with Wilson's voice at its clearest and most oracular.

The character at the play's center is Aunt Ester, a presence prepared for in other plays in the cycle, when she is invoked as a spiritual healer of mythic dimensions, said to be as old as African presence in America. She appears in Gem as a flesh-and-blood woman, although she claims to be 285 years old.

Though Phylicia Rashad (of Cosby fame) played the role to great acclaim on Broadway, the first to play Aunt Ester (at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago) was Greta Oglesby, who plays her in this production in Ashland. So not only did we see a sterling, moving performance, but it was by the actor August Wilson reportedly had in mind when he wrote the part.

As you can just about tell by their names, the characters in this play are both realistic and mythic: Black Mary, Aunt Ester's protégée (played by Shona Tucker); Citizen Barlow, the young stranger who needs Ester's guidance (Kevin Kenerly); Caesar, the villainous black constable (Derrick Lee Weeden); Rutherford Selig, a white traveling peddler (Bill Geisslinger); Eli, Ester's gatekeeper (Josiah Phillips); and, in particular, Solly Two Kings, the larger-than-life former slave who had escaped to Canada but returned to spirit other slaves to "Freedomland" on the Underground Railroad. G. Valmont Thomas gives a tour de force performance as Two Kings (named after both King Solomon and King David) who continues a more complicated fight for freedom and compassion in industrial Pittsburgh.

While the steel mill down the street employs but virtually enslaves black immigrants from the South, leading to a riot, a fire and inevitable death, Aunt Ester's house becomes the fulcrum of several fates, worked out on economic, political, spiritual and personal levels. There's action and interaction, but also Wilson's characteristic storytelling, sounding as natural as overheard talk, yet with no word wasted and every word weighted — this time even more heightened and sharpened by the themes being set for the entire cycle.

When Aunt Ester sends Citizen on a tranced voyage to the undersea City of Bones clutching a paper boat, and that paper unfolded by Caesar contains writing that shatters his argument for law over justice — you know you are in the hands of a great poet of the theatre at the height of his achievement.

The play works with precision on several levels at once, and challenges the production to do so as well. The actors, director Timothy Bond and the other responsible parties at OSF meet the challenge with inventive lighting, choreographed movement and especially some wonderful singing that together bring the metaphorical to life, and the sense of conscious consequence to the flow of days. Life is a battlefield, Solly says, "And the battlefield's bloody! The field of battle is always bloody. It can't be no other way." And yet, Aunt Ester says, "Don't you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain't all for you to know. It's all an adventure. That's all life is. But you got to trust that adventure."

There were probably more black people on stage than in the audience (but then, that was also true of OSF's The Tempest ) — still, the play connected and there were irrepressible bursts of applause and sounds of approval during the show, as well as the obligatory — but in this case, fully deserved — standing ovation.

That's fitting, because Wilson's plays connect all over the world. At his funeral service in Pittsburgh, director Marion McClinton (who directed Greta Oglesby in this play in Chicago) said, "August Wilson changed the lives of young men and women, of old men and women, of men and women in between, black, white, red, yellow. If they came from Mars, he changed them."

Distracted is a contemporary play by Lisa Loomer about a family dealing with a child who may or may not have Attention Deficit Disorder. Loomer creates the properly capacious context, and uses the incisiveness of visual as well as verbal humor without neglecting the pathos and complexity inherent in the subject. The OSF production fully supports and expresses the play. With its ability to surprise that energizes its honesty and involves the audience moment by moment, I felt this was a more effective treatment of a family issue than was Rabbit Hole earlier this season (but that play won the Pulitzer Prize, so what do I know). The OSF's New Theatre was a perfect venue for this smaller, more focusing, in-the-round kind of theatre, as evidenced by the fact that absolutely everyone was talking about their experiences with ADD as they left the show. Distracted runs until Oct. 28.

For more on Gem of the Ocean and August Wilson — including the story of how I rode with the August Wilson gang — tune in to

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