August Wilsons 10-play chronicle of the 20th-century African-American experience is one of the great achievements in dramatic literature. Gem of the Ocean, the first play in the cycle, is probably the playwrights most symbolic and provocative. The setting is 1904 Pittsburgh, a time when many blacks were no better off than they were during chattel slavery. But the home of 287-year-old Aunt Ester (alternate Carlease Burke), is a place of rest, refuge and mystery for a colorful group of residents and regulars. Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter) is a boarder/handyman with an angels heart; Black Mary (Tené Carter Miller) is a long-suffering maid and washerwoman; and her brother Cesar (Rocky Gardiner), a badge-heavy cop with a Napoleon Complex, whose primary function is to control the colored people of the city. Then theres the rabble-rousing, garrulous Solly Two Kings (a star turn by Adolphus Ward), a former Union scout who helped runaway slaves. When a troubled stranger, Citizen Barlow (Keith Arthur Bolden), steals into the house, seeking Esters magical soul-cleansing powers, it sets off a chain of events that forever alters the lives of all those involved. Gem is a play where grand themes, like the connection between past and present, the nature of freedom and spiritual redemption, are explored, but you dont get that sense here, at least not in a dynamic fashion. With the exception of Ward, the performances lack the necessary polish and emotional resonance. Director Ben Bradley, who did brilliant work in Fountains production of Wilsons Joe Turners Come and Gone, is not at his best here, as the pacing at times is far from crisp though I did see it late in the run. Rounding out the cast is Stephen Marshall. The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 22. (323)-663-1525.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: Oct. 11. Continues through Feb. 22, 2008