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Grace in adversity 

Actor's Theatre had to fill two key roles in their current production of Charles Randolph-Wright's Blue -- including the vocalist who plays the title role and sings all the music -- early last week as the show was just days from opening. Yet aside from the occasional stammer, hardly distinguishable from the usual Critics' Night jitters, last Thursday's opening had the customary Stonewall Street grace.

Lesson: when a superlative cast, resourcefully directed, digs into a superlative script, mountainous obstacles become molehills. Marcus Sherman, the original Blue Williams, sang the Nona Hendryx songs directly to us -- and the women he bewitches in the drama -- wearing only his costume and a moody spotlight. But when Quentin Talley took over, he would have to sight-read the music. So director Sidney Horton made a virtue of necessity, turning Blue's corner of the stage into a recording studio throughout the show, sitting Talley down behind a music stand.

Replacing Samuel Clark Jr., family patriarch and founder of the Clark Funeral Home in fictional Kent, S.C., was a more formidable challenge for Horton. He's doing that himself.

Now please don't be offended that I've mentioned Mr. Sherman in an unflattering context. The young actor, remembered for his roles in Side Show and Gem of the Ocean, has passed away. According to the latest info from Actor's Theatre artistic director Chip Decker, a memorial service is scheduled for this Saturday, location to be announced.

So are the Clarks from Kent all supermen and superwomen? Not at all, unless you're saddled with the notion that blacks in the Palmetto State are all poor and uneducated. Only Peggy Clark, Clark Jr.'s imported spouse from Chicago, wishes to stress -- and maintain -- the difference between the affluent funeral barons and the Carolina riffraff wheeled through their parlors. Perpetually dressed in red, Peg is every inch a drama queen, source of most of the family's strife and keeper of its biggest secret. For most of the evening, her redeeming graces are her outrageousness, her sense of style, and her adoration of Blue. Except for an import that surfaces deep into Act 2, she has everything Blue has ever recorded and, to the chagrin of everyone else in the household, plays his albums incessantly.

If she's the iron heart of this drama, then her younger son, trumpeter Reuben Clark, is the gilded soul. He shares mom's aversion to the funeral biz and is clearly her favorite over Sam III, but her imperious pushiness, her histrionics, and her prejudices are all trials for Reuben in his youth. Two actors, Sterling Frierson and Jeremy DeCarlos, are required to span Reuben's journey from childhood to manhood -- and Randolph-Wright decrees that both are often onstage simultaneously. DeCarlos, as the adult Reuben, narrates during Act 1 and parleys with his younger self when he's frustrated with his mom. Fair enough, but I'm not sure I'm aboard in Act 2 when the roles flip-flop and the child chides the man.

After her stunning Charlotte debut last season in Gem of the Ocean as Aunt Ester, it would be hyperbole to say Karen Abercrombie surpasses herself, but she's not too far from equaling that majesty. I'm more tempted go hyperbolic with Jeremy DeCarlos -- even though fine performances in Topdog/Underdog, Take Me Out, Natural Selection, and Gem are already logged in his local dossier. Watching the range of this performance, both with the spotlight on him or as he observes from the periphery, will be time well-spent by aspiring performers. "Damn!" I could almost hear the playwright saying of his autobiographical double as he sat in the audience last Thursday, "I wish I was that cool, charming, and sensitive."

There's a lot of richness and humor in the other characters who revolve around the Reuben-Peggy-Blue axis. As Sam III, Jonavan Adams enters with an Afro doo large enough to make Billy Preston roll his eyes, not the likeliest successor in the Clarks' funereal dynasty. Grandma Tillie is always good for some comical friction, staunchly opposing Peggy's snobbery, giving Sam Jr. grief for putting up with it, and reliably taking Reuben's side. Cassandra Lowe Williams feasts on the role with such zest you wonder whether she can bear to take off her Sunday-best costume.

Kim Watson Brooks rounds out the cast, deftly personifying the twists and turns of the serpentine plot. At first, she's Sam III's girlfriend, emblematic of his youthful defiance of his mom. But she evolves into Peggy's personal protegee before leaving with Blue to Chicago as his paramour. She returns to Kent as an outcast unwed mother -- with Peggy's secret up her declasse sleeve.

Bring a hanky or two for the denouement. You won't believe how much these uppity, dignified Clarks really love each other.

While the Actor's Lab invasion continues in SouthEnd, another issues-oriented guerilla presentation has struck at the Great Aunt Stella Center, triggered by Anne Lambert and her Charlotte's Off-Broadway. Lisa Loomer's Living Out comes to us cleverly billed as "A Contemporary Comic Drama about Mommies and Nannies." But with Ana and her two nanny chums all hailing from Latin America, the comedy and the drama are cross-cultural as well.

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