Based on Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Gleam hits a glorious stride at Centerstage in Baltimore, mainly because of the well-tuned script by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner in the capable hands of director Marion McClinton.
McClinton, who shows a particular sensibility for the sound, rhythm and cadence of the piece,never lets it feel like stock archival footage, but instead, brings it to life. The production’s great casting of the two female leads adds appeal and charm, with Christiana Clark as Janie and Stephanie Berry playing two roles – as the all-knowing and helpful narrator who adds insights throughout and as Janie’s trusted friend, Pheoby.
McClinton’s steady reliable pace provides enough space for the actors to delve into their characters and bring an invigorating liveliness to the earthy dialog, showcasing Hurston’s gifts of words, expressions and vernacular. For example, she takes being tired to a whole new level when Janie has to “soak the tiredness out of my feet.” Most of the scene changes bustle along with characters adding crates and items as needed for transition with only a slight lagging of several beats in the second act, but the time is well spent as the story unfolds around Janie’s journey.
And, my oh my, what a journey awaits. Set in the Florida Everglades in the early 1900’s, the tale opens with town folk bustling about on everyday chores, mending fences, weeding gardens, and hauling bushels of produce. Janie is spotted dragging her tired, dusty self down the road in torn up mud-spattered overalls, a far cry from her prosperous attire when she strutted out of town just a spell ago. And so the tale begins, the telling of a story, the likes of which had never before been depicted with such prominence and lyricism before Zora Neale Hurston’s tale of a simple black woman’s yearnings for love.
Christiana Clark as Janie brings a solid and powerful physicality to her character who could work a mule, plow a field or tend the acres of crops, but who just as easily shows a tender and dreamy approach to life. Clark’s deep vocal resonance brings out the lyrical beauty of the lines making them sing, and even shout when needed. She captures every nuance of Janie’s emotional journey, whether married at 14 to an oafish husband to satisfy her grandma’s concern for stability, or her escape to the arms of an up and coming shopkeeper, who treats her like the help.
Janie handles her lots in life with an underlying strength that keeps her keeping on. When she meets the love of her life, the aptly named Tea Cake (Brooks Edward Brantly), Janie has to decide if she’s going to live out the rest of her life in the comfort of her stable day-to-day existence, or select the unknown, trust the gambling, good-hearted wanderer who offers her the love of a fleeting moon.
Need I say more about what route she decides to take? No spoiler alert needed here that Tea Cake’s promises of a lifetime of passion and romance are as fleeting as dreams washed away in the Florida tide, thus her dragging back home, poorer and wiser, but with a hell of a story to tell. Clark depicts these pivotal moments beautifully, bringing a wide-eyed excitement to each new encounter. She’s a wonder to behold.
Stephanie Berry narrates with an easy approach and manner. Axel Avin Jr. plays Janie’s status seeking husband Jody Starks with a magnetic strong appeal, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd brings a colorfully seasoned presence to his characters. Brantly is an acceptable Tea Cake, but he is simply outmatched when Clark lights up the stage. From Janie’s initial entrance to her ending reflections about life, she sparkles—even when down on her luck, with everything she’s treasured washed away, she still believes and holds on tight to life’s goodness and grace, no matter what, and we believe right along with her.
I cannot say enough about the beautiful, multi-tiered set design by David Gallo featuring entrances and exits galore that McClinton busies with townsfolk gatherings. The curved walkway that traverses the stage adds a flowing sense of motion and purpose with its precipitous incline as characters traipse along its widening path offstage. A formidable collection of farm instruments frames the entire stage’s border, and the full moon beams with celestial glory. Add to that, the music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen which set the mood with classic jazzy riffs and gin sopping blues, with a horrific hurricane thrown in for good measure, aided by Michael Wangen’s exquisite light design.
Also exquisite are the rarely seen pictures of Zora Neale Hurston collected in the program to appreciate and treasure, an added bonus for catching this production which CenterStage has thoughtfully reproduced here.
Packed with Hurston’s folksy humor and lyrical language, its third airing in nearly 25 years, this shimmering production of Gleam is as significant as it is timeless.
By Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner
Based on the work of Zora Neale Hurston
Directed by Marion McClinton
Produced by CenterStage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission