Theater Review: Echoes of Tennessee Williams in Bartlett Theater's Production of Lynn Nottage's Crumbs From the Table of Joy | Arts

Theater Review: Echoes of Tennessee Williams in Bartlett Theater's Production of Lynn Nottage's Crumbs From the Table of Joy

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PHOTO BY STEVAN DUPOR
  • photo by Stevan Dupor
Crumbs From the Table of Joy
★★★ ½
Through March 12
Bartlett Theater at PSI Theatre, Durham

An enigmatic narrator is telling a theater audience a poetic but fraught coming-of-age story, looking back at a distant adolescence in a dingy city tenement. In this memory play, the world has outflanked a family of rural Southern transplants and a parent hopelessly trapped in outdated folkways and superstitions. Though excursions to the movies provide them with temporary sensations of liberation, the walls have been closing in, and the elder’s constrictive rules and dead-end plans will never accommodate the narrator's need to learn, create, and grow. Escape becomes mandatory and irrevocable, even though he leaves behind a beloved sister with a permanent limp.

Small wonder, then, that critics and audiences have always seen more than a trace of Tennessee Williams in Crumbs From the Table of Joy, the 1996 play by Lynn Nottage that Bartlett Theater is presenting after a year-long delay in its inaugural season. Most of the aforementioned plot points apply just as easily to The Glass Menagerie, the classic Williams drama Bartlett staged in its notable first run.

It's telling that designer Amanda Warriner relies on outlines of empty space—chairs with backs not filled in, frames without portraits above a cold fireplace—to indicate the most potent absences in this remembrance of things past. One empty frame is said to hold the portrait of Sandra, the mother of Ernestine, the narrator, and her sister Ermina, and wife to their father, Godfrey, whose sudden death has propelled the family northward, away from the racism of the deep South.

The other, larger one, is devoted to Father Divine, a holy-rolling huckster whom a desperate Godfrey relied upon to pull him out of his profound bereavement after his wife's death. Though cash-strapped, he orders Divine's miracle elixir and pours over his regular newsletters predicting prosperity, but he's left with nothing more than a pocketful of unresolvable questions about his family, the world, and life itself.

In Bartlett’s second outing, director Karen Dacons-Brock has developed a striking set of characters in this loving but unsettling snapshot, although she sometimes defaults to kludgy or static blocking. As Ernestine, Lakeisha Coffey is strong, with firm control of the narrative, though her transitions into and out of the world of memory are rough at times, and some longer monologues need further mapping and exploration. Moriah Williams is fierce and fragile as Ermina, and Jade Arnold is authoritative as a bewildered Godfrey, who tries to hold himself and his family together.

Melanie Matthews brings a careless sophistication to the sometimes venomous Lily Ann, Sandra’s sister, who educates the children in the ways of big city girls. Emily Rieder returns to the regional stage as the fish out of water, Godfrey’s white—and German—bride, Grete.

The cramped confines of a Brooklyn basement apartment seem even more claustrophobic than the East St. Louis walkup where Williams’s characters once contended. Plus, this group finds, at best, provisional shelter from a different constellation of challenges, including racial prejudice and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the mid-century. In this sometimes lyrical, sometimes frank, self-styled Menagerie, the characters are made of anything but glass.

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