Marin Theatre enlivens the first entry in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister trilogy
STAGE The young woman has something wrong with her; a chorus of women tell us so. They're neighbors in the same particular, yet nebulous, time/place: a housing project in a nameless small town in the Louisiana bayou, some time in the "distant present." As if floating on water, the young woman, an African American teen named Oya (Lakisha May), lies prone on a dais at the center of an otherwise bare stage as they speak of her. Her name, like those of all the characters in Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, evokes African folklore, but there is something of the classical Greek tragedy about all this too, something of Lorca, and more. This is meta-theatrical terrain as hybrid and multifarious as the culture of the bayou itself.
As we circle back to the beginning of her story, Oya seems destined for great things. She's an exceptional runner, a natural in fact, and it brings her great joy as well as the offer of a scholarship to the state school. But she defers the offer to be with her ailing single mother (Nicol Foster) and soon finds herself not moving at all.
Oya's hopes shift to love. But the great love of her young life, a lothario named Shango (an excellent Isaiah Johnson), soon joins the military, leaving Oya to the care of a fallback sweetheart, the big, gentle, stuttering Ogun Size (Ryan Vincent Anderson). She continues stagnating, restless, unhappy, spending all her time on the porch of her house. It seems a baby might save Oya, but she appears incapable of becoming pregnant. Her desperation grows, since her womb and her world will not. Left with no room to breathe, no air, no forward motion, Oya's fate is all but sealed.
It would be something for any new play by a playwright under 30 to live up to the hype that greeted McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, which opened last week at Marin Theatre Company. Fortunately for playwright and audience alike, MTC delivers a solid production, attractively staged by its own producing director, Ryan Rilette (whose relationship with the playwright goes back to a production at Rilette's former stomping grounds, New Orleans' Southern Rep), and featuring some fine performances by a strong, engaging ensemble. But if the Bay Area premiere of this first work in McCraney's much touted trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays — all being staged over the coming weeks in an unprecedented coproduction by MTC, the Magic, and ACT — well serves the real talents exhibited by the acclaimed newcomer, the play itself still falls short of its ambitious scope.
Rilette's impressive cast and fluid staging take the poetry and humor in McCraney's words and run with it. The playwright has his characters voice their own and others' stage directions — calling knowing attention to the artifice of theatrical storytelling as well as the narrations we make of our own lives — and the actors handle this aspect with aplomb, deftly shifting from bland utterance to in-character performance of the emotion or action described. There's much well-throated song and some affecting sensuality here too. But the theatrical style only partly makes up for some thinness in plot and character. Oya's is a humble story, at one level, and the strength of the play comes in recognizing her as worthy of our attention. At the same time, the playwright's urge to cast her along a trajectory of classical-tragic proportions ends up feeling overblown instead of quietly poignant.