The play was long, and I was late.
“3 hours. Two intermissions,” is how a friend broke the news to me, via text, as I hustled down 40th street.
“3 hours of play. PLUS 25 minutes of intermission,” an usher corrected as we waited in the lobby for the right window to slip into my seat.
There’s a task in contemporary theater (contemporary life?): get the story out before everyone gets bored. Before the energy dies. Before theater dies. Prove that this play is worth the risk of COVID exposure. Convince us that we won’t regret sitting through the train troubles and not turning around and calling it a night. Assure us that this won’t be a waste of time. And quickly.
It’s an impossible task, but playwrights rise to the occasion often, with plots that are off to the races once the lights are up and stacked with action that dares (begs?) the audience not to look away.
In exchange, we agree to do our part as viewers, frantically taking inventory on the characters and circumstances and relationships to keep up.
I spend the first act of The Refuge Plays doing my part. I gather:
We’re in Illinois. There’s a family.
A Big family. A close family.
A house in the woods, built by Grandma Early (Nicole Ari Parker) and Crazy Eddie (Daniel J. Watts).
Gail (Jessica Frances Dukes) is the mom. The spirit of her dead husband –Walking Man –comes to tell her that she’s to die tomorrow.
Gail has a daughter, Joy.
Joy has a son, Ha-ha.
Ha-Ha is sweet and charming and not great at talking to girls.
Ha-Ha has a friend, Symphony.
Symphony is sweet and charming and very great at talking to everyone.
Grandma Early mostly sits in a rocking chair (but it’s Nicole Ari Parker, so there will be more of her. I make a note of that).
I watch the first act work wrap up its introductions and make sure I’ve got it straight.
Youngest to oldest.
Symphony and Ha-Ha.
Gail and Walking Man (Deceased)
Early and Crazy Eddie (Deceased).
An hour down and two to go. I’d done my work of Following Along™, and now I was ready for my dopamine reward. Convince me. Prove to me. Assure me. Who’s gonna yell, fight, and cry for the next – I check my phone – two hours.
Nathan Alan Davis; however, does not take the bait.
The second and third parts of The Refuge Plays thrust the family into the past. Davis rewinds time, first, to the days when a younger Early and alive Crazy Eddie are putting the finishing touches on this house alongside their young adult son, Walking Man. Then, again, to the same woods a few months after Early’s given birth.
Davis’s writing never lets go of its grand ambitions, but it does diffuse the expectation of the epic as a spectacular event. The show instead finds its heart in small and simple moments between family members, who seem to be discovering again and again – in front of us – what it means for them to be a family. The core cast sits well in their roles, literally and relationally. Lance Coadie Williams as Crazy Eddie’s brother Dax has a hypnotizing and hilarious command of the stage and the text. It’s a treat to watch, in their two person scenes, as he lobs his confident splendor to the more delicate, curious Walking Man. The actors weave the multi-generational lineage together with moving subtlety (Dukes, Parker, and Lizan Mitchell borrow small cadences and drawls from each other like wild songbirds) that give real weight to the breadth of the tale. They seem to know what this play is up to, and their commitment to honoring that keeps these scenes buoyant.
Still, as the play finds its middle, several moments feel like false starts: a meeting in the woods seems ripe with promise; a set of apparitions introduce some family lore, and a reveal all but threatens to call a hero to action; but Davis puts out these flames just as swiftly as he lights them. There’s a tension in these false starts. It’s possible that the lack of momentum creates a void that’s too large to ignore. It’s also possible that the pleasure of watching these characters wade through these nonlinear meditations on belonging may be enough to make up for it.
The third act settles the debate for an audience one way or another. In the play’s most synergetic collaboration between Davis and director Patricia McGregor, we ride out the play’s end with the story’s bare bones beginning: a tender meeting in the woods between Early and Crazy Eddie.
There is no pop quiz in the end, no reward for tracking the crumbs of action or menacing lines of dialogue. There are mostly offerings here. Take them. Leave them. But there is something to be found in sitting with this family for a while.
Hell, what’s three hours in the grand scheme of a legacy?