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Thursday, 13 February 2014 12:56

Engrossing ‘Gee’s Bend’ stitches together a family quilt with an historic story

Written by Tina Farmer
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Engrossing ‘Gee’s Bend’ stitches together a family quilt with an historic story
mustardseedtheatre.com

The story of the community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, its origins and struggles, is an interesting and important square in the American quilt. That this small community also contributed to the American folk art movement in significant ways with their own quilts adds an amazing layer of beauty and warmth. Mustard Seed Theatre's production may lack a bit in vibrant colors and conflict, but the show is grounded with memorable performances and dramatic tension.

Director Deanna Jent finds levels of intimacy and intrigue in this family drama that speaks volumes on the history of race relations in America, touching not only on our hopes and fears but our resilient spirit. The script, by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder is ambitious, spanning three generations and touching on important moments in America's history. By focusing on a single family, Wilder is able to provide depth, context and gentle humor that carry the show.

The four actors in Mustard Seed's production create memorable characters representing both family and a community. It is a daunting task, but Jacqueline L. Thompson, Marty K Casey, Alicia Reve Like and Reginald Pierre prove more than capable. Their performances are embellished with the quirks and subtleties of individuals and endowed with the comfort of a familiar honesty.

Thompson provides a strong lead as she artfully portrays Sadie from a blossoming girl of 15 to a wise and kind old age, many decades later. With each transition, Thompson retains the open, intelligent spirit present from her first line of dialogue but tempers it with the pain of experience and maturity. It is easy to root for Sadie's happiness, but much harder to understand the price at which it comes.

Like, as sister Nella, must also span many years in the course of the play. Her Nella is full of song and just a bit ornery. And, though her singing may crack a bit as she gets older, the depth of feeling and sincerity is retained. As testament to the excellent script, neither Nella nor Sadie are one-dimensional characters. They are filled with desires and envy and sisterly spats tempered by deep affection. Thompson and Like deliver exceptional performances that are stronger for each other's presence.

Casey and Pierre shine in their supporting roles, creating richly nuanced characters that stand on their own, as well as fill in the pattern of one particular family's patchwork quilt. Pierre is strong, determined and proud as Sadie's husband Macon. He is not beyond cruelty or regret. And, there's a lovely consistency of the familiar and familial in Casey's portrayal of both Sadie and Nella's mother and Sadie and Macon's daughter.

Director Deanna Jent's direction makes good use of the stage and material, with a measured pace that allows reflection without slowing the action. The set design by Kyra Bishop is both fanciful and practical, with walls flexible stage pieces and a gorgeous backdrop representing a Gee's Ben quilt. Bess Moynihan's lighting effectively adds mood and focus, and Jane Sullivan's understated costumes broadly identify the era and status of the family, but also feature subtle touches, such as an abundance of cotton and denim, that show an eye to detail and authenticity.

The thoughtful and affecting "Gee's Bend" continues through February 23, 2014. For reservations and more information, visit mustardseedtheatre.com or call (314) 719-8060.

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