Earlier this fall, Everyman Theatre brought one of the American theater's great characters back to Baltimore. Amanda Wingfield, the governing force in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, is a monster of a parent and yet, especially as played by Deborah Hazlett, a strangely compelling figure, attracting us even as she repels us. And now, Center Stage has introduced a very similar character in Marcus Gardley's play dance of the holy ghosts. Oscar Clifton, who dominates the show, is another terrible, terrifying parent and yet is also irresistibly magnetic, especially as played by Michael Genet.
The result, if not quite a classic on the level of The Glass Menagerie, is a tremendously powerful play. Both shows demonstrate that many family problems are caused not by a lack of love but by a powerful love distorted into a destructive force. Oscar, a hulking man with a bald dome and gray goatee, in a sad, sagging sweater, is so consumed by love for his estranged wife, Viola (Denise Burse), that he talks to her even when she isn't there. But there's a reason they've been separated for 20 years, for his love vacillates between overbearing control and total neglect.
Like Amanda, Oscar likes to live in the past, back before his ambitions were thwarted, when it still seemed possible that he might become a famous blues singer and guitarist. Like Amanda, Oscar is displaced from the Deep South of his childhood. Most of dance of the holy ghosts is set in Oakland, Calif., but one crucial scene is set in Monroe, La., where a teenage Oscar convinces an adolescent Viola to get married and move to the West Coast. Like Amanda, Oscar has his story told by the thinly disguised alter ego of the playwright. Marcus Gardley even lends his own name to Oscar's grandson, played by Sheldon Best as a 10-year-old boy and as an adult college professor, with several stops in between.
At one point in the Center Stage production, Oscar carries his new bride across the threshold of their Oakland apartment, and they begin nuzzling on the living room couch. All of a sudden, a horn beeps outside and Viola instinctively knows that Oscar's bandleader has come to pick him up for a gig. Oscar denies it, but the way the actor Genet glances nervously at the door, Viola knows she's right. She begs him not to leave her on her wedding night, and he promises her he won't, but he keeps turning his head toward the door and the tempting truck horn.
As directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, this scene is a riveting example of a person torn between romantic love and selfish ambition, communicated as much by Genet's body language as by Gardley's written words. His love is as sincere and powerful as his ambition, and that's what keeps us interested in him, even as he makes bad decision after bad decision. As Viola, Denise Burse's body has its own eloquence. Whether she's playing a seductive game of chess with Oscar in Monroe or trying to keep him home on their wedding night in Oakland, Burse has a way of using her wide hips to tempt him and her haughty, uplifted head to hold him at a certain distance.
At key moments throughout the play, Oscar is faced with similar decisions. Should he keep his promise to his daughter Darlene (Chandra Thomas) and pick up his grandson at school, or should he pursue a new clue to Viola's whereabouts? Should he fulfill a request to sing at a family funeral, or should he stick to his refusal to never go out in the daytime or step foot in a church? How should he respond to an unexpected betrayal: forgiveness, banishment, or violence? In each case, Gardley's smart writing makes all the options plausible, and Genet's every word and every twitch telegraph his fluctuating decision-making process.
Gardley's attempts to inject self-consciously literary poetry into the script backfire; the stilted metaphors are much less convincing than his muscular dialogue, which artfully implies larger themes without explicitly announcing them. Both Oscar and Darlene possess a blue-collar lack of tact. Their blunt challenges to the other characters not only ramp up the tension but also release it in big laughs. This is the one area where Gardley has a clear advantage over Williams: The younger playwright is able to be very funny at times without undermining the seriousness of his central story.
Neil Patel's handsome set at Center Stage balances the wood-slat floor of Oscar's Oakland apartment atop a hill of dirt, cinders, and trash, as if the room full of old vinyl records might lift off or tumble down the slopes. A similar uncertainty infects every scene, every character: Will they rise up on their best impulses or sink to their worst? That question lets us know that we're watching real human beings and not just cardboard saints and villains. It lets us know that we're watching an important new American play.
dance of the holy ghosts, written by Marcus Gardley and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah is performed At Center Stage through Nov. 17.