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Landlocked gem 

Climbing aboard a tortured frigate

There's no better way to sail into Black History Month than climbing aboard August Wilson's mighty Gem of the Ocean. Written in the fullness of his years -- Wilson died less than eight months after its Broadway voyage ended -- Gem is the cornerstone of the playwright's 10-play, decade-by-decade traversal of African-American experience across the 20th century.

It claims cornerstone status by virtue of standing first chronologically in Wilson's extraordinary series, set in 1904 Pittsburgh, and by hauling the most precious cargo into its hull. Presiding over the scene at 1839 Wylie Avenue is the renowned healer of the city, 285-year-old Aunt Ester. Do the math and you'll surmise that Ester was born in Mother Africa before the Mayflower weighed anchor in Plymouth.

She's been stateside nearly all of that time, symbolizing our common heritage and able, by virtue of her mystic powers, to take us back across the centuries to the fearsome, storm-tossed voyage that brought her hither. Ester does this in the most majestic dramatic scene of the new millennium as she takes Citizen Barlow, newly escaped from Alabama, on a voodoo voyage to the City of Bones, reaching this mythic realm aboard that tortured frigate named Gem of the Ocean.

We need to remember that Citizen Barlow is the hero here, and his journey to the City of Bones is one of two rites of passage he undergoes during the course of the drama. The other mythic figure he draws strength from is fellow Alabaman, Solly Two Kings. Solomon-David's colorful past includes a stint as a conductor on the Underground Railroad after escaping slavery. He made it all the way up to Canada, where he encountered "good white people," but turned back to the States, feeling that freedom shouldn't be that easy. It should be fought for. If Ester gives Citizen his soul, it's Solly who bequeaths his mission.

Looking at the dulled, realistic design concept of the current Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production, I often wondered whether director John Rogers Harris, in his local debut, was confusing Citizen Barlow's coming of age with Nora Helmer's when he decreed his objectives. The main reason that Karen Abercrombie and Sidney Horton don't attain the same mythic stature, portraying Aunt Ester and Solly, that Phylicia Rashad and Anthony Chisholm achieved on Broadway is their landlocked surroundings and humdrum costuming.

Stripped away is the funky mumbo-jumbo of Ester's shawl and bead necklaces. Solly's multi-colored pants and orange vest -- not to mention a splendiferous greatcoat -- are replaced by more functional garb, seemingly gleaned from an L.L. Bean catalog. His totemic walking stick looks about as old as an iPhone. Ken Ellis' wood-paneled set is barely more flavorful than Eric Grace's staunchly wrong-headed costumes.

Until we embark on the voyage to the City of Bones, Hallie Gray's lighting at 1839 Wylie looks nothing at all like a modest home lit by kerosene. When we're finally aboard the Gem of the Ocean, lights do go way down, the upstage wall slides away, and we get a frightful vision of the ship's storm-tossed sails.

Yes, the mystic voyage scene delivers its payload (after skimming past an awkward interlude that required a map). Because this cast is strong, most of the badly packaged cargo arrives intact. Saddled with mundane apparel, Sidney Horton isn't quite the stuff of legend as Solly, nor does he give off the aura of a raging 67-year-old, but he's truly charismatic and worthy of Citizen's adoration. In some ways, Jeremy DeCarlos is better than the Citizen Barlow that I saw on Broadway: weaker, more vulnerable, and more like us. His chemistry with Ester's housemaid, Black Mary, rings truer -- especially with Kim Watson Brooks pointing up the coming of age that's happening in that romance. Marcus Minnard Sherman is even more radically different as Caesar Wilkes, Mary's brother, than DeCarlos from his Broadway original.

Bedeviled by ugly, starchy dresses and garish lighting, compelled to move about her home instead of being enthroned there like a divine priestess, Karen Abercrombie still triumphs as Aunt Ester in her Charlotte debut. Throughout the evening, her peppery sternness is beautifully punctuated by softness, tenderness and wry cracker-barrel wisdom. As Citizen prepares to be shriven, she understands that the difficulty of the struggle is chiefly what makes the prize of expiation so cherishable -- even if she has to fabricate that difficulty. And when she calls out his name during his harrowing journey across the ocean, down to the depths where death lurks and redemption is found, Abercrombie's exhortations of "Citizen!" include all of us in Aunt Ester's spell.

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