Sometimes the frame can't contain the picture, either because the latter is too strong or the former too weak. In this case, it's both.
The case is Marcus Gardley's contemporary yarn, "every tongue confess," now concluding its two-weekend, six-performance run at the August Wilson Center. I emphasize that conclusion to start, because you only have three chances left to see this zestful musical tale imbued with rich folkloric comedy and contemporary truth-telling.
The stories mainly concern a teenage girl who loses her drug-connected mother and finds a father full of hate, a gravedigger who turns prophet and a preacher who struggles with her gossiping congregation before finding a magic stranger with some answers.
These are interwoven with the 1996 burning of a Southern black church, one of an epidemic of church burnings that actually swept the South that decade.
It sounds like grim stuff, but like Zora Neale Hurston or August Wilson or the blues, what's grim in the abstract can be something else as an expansive, robust tale with a colorful cast of characters -- especially when told with comic exaggeration, warm-hearted insight, surprising twists and homegrown magic realism. Playwright Gardley is not shy of making affectionate fun of what he also admires.
The framework I complain of is that the play starts with three churchgoers suddenly trapped in their burning church, at which point they decide to tell leisurely stories to pass the time until their (apparently) certain death.
The stories twist and turn, eventually focusing on the (not so very impenetrable) mystery of who's setting the fires. The framework seems cardboard compared to the colorful characters and humor of the tales told, the apparent time scheme is pure sleight-of-hand, and the final resolution is forced.
But the tale-telling trio speaks in jaunty rhyme, and the characters hold you, as some of the actors sink their teeth into the opportunities provided. Mr. Gardley's script is also full of integrating metaphors -- themes of blood, fire and water that course through the play; parallel behaviors, past and present; and disparate family stories that suddenly merge.
The church fires may have been literal but they are also metaphoric. The 1996 summer is described as "hot as Hades" where the "corns [are] popping on my feet." In a more homey strain, "a man that can cook good eggs and grits can conquer the world" and "a good story is told slow but it goes by real fast."
Chrystal Bates plays the preacher with a full arsenal of dry commentary, ironic command and stem-winding prophecy. Rico Parker is affecting as her son, and Les Howard gives full-bodied expression to the prophet, tellingly named Jeremiah (see the Biblical book of that name).
Tami Dixon turns in a small gem as a Bernadette who isn't a saint but does have some of her namesake's mysticism, and Hayley Neilsen is plaintive and feisty as her afflicted daughter. Joseph Martinez is her emotionally tormented father, tellingly named Stoker Pride.
Rounding out the cast are Jason Shavers, the always capable Bria Walker and, in a role for which he is far too young, Vendell Nasir. The acting veers between professional and something less, but it is consistently robust. Presumably the production is by the Center's theater ensemble, though this isn't made clear.
Director Tre Garrett wisely emphasizes the fable-like nature, letting the actors play big to fill in the folkloric outlines. Sean Urbantke's set does a lot with a little, aided immeasurably by Eric Smith's sound, although Christopher Popowwich's handsome lighting was erratically deployed at the performance I saw.
There's a lot of plot in just over two hours (and that includes an intermission). Not all of it makes sense or seems necessary, either. But this isn't a play that obeys the dictates of realism or rationality -- it's really all about magic, swagger and heart.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at firstname.lastname@example.org .