BWW Review: THE GIFT HORSE: Obehi Janice Sparkles in Lydia Diamond's Early Play
The Gift Horse
Written by Lydia Diamond, Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Designer, Jon Savage; Costume Designer, Penney Pinette; Lighting Designer, Alberto Segarra; Sound Designer & Composer, Dewey Dellay; Stage Manager, Brian M. Robillard
CAST (in alphabetical order): Cloteal L. Horne, Obehi Janice, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Zachary Rice, Alejandro Simoes, Lewis D. Wheeler
Playwright Lydia Diamond has made her mark with several award-winning plays, including Smart People and Stick Fly, the latter staged at the Huntington Theatre Company in 2010 before making its way to Broadway with Director Kenny Leon. Knowing the caliber of her work now, it is interesting to join New Repertory Theatre for a ride in the wayback machine for the Boston-area premiere of one of Diamond's earliest plays. Written approximately twenty years ago, The Gift Horse is a somewhat autobiographical, witty play that is heavy on character, rife with serious themes, and about fifteen to twenty minutes longer than what we are accustomed to two decades later.
Speaking in lyrical tones, almost like she is reciting poetry, Obehi Janice is captivating and sympathetic in the lead female role of Ruth, an African-American woman who is an educator, a devoted friend, and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She wants to find a lover who will nurture her and make her feel special, but she wants more than anything to be a mother. The Gift Horse is a non-linear telling of Ruth's story as it interweaves with the stories of her gay Latino friend Ernesto (Alejandro Simoes, endearing) and her African-American therapist Brian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent, cool and collected). These two caring men help Ruth deal with her painful past, as well as become critical players in her future. Through these strong, well-developed characters, Diamond shows thaT Loving relationships are what enable people to endure whatever life brings their way.
The format of the play involves a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, primarily by Janice, Simoes, and Cloteal L. Horne (Jordan), a young African-American woman seated with a cello off to the side of the action. Jordan's purpose in the plot is a confusing mystery until near the end of the play, but she periodically interjects a statement into the dialogue, in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although Horne is engaging as the character, her faux cello playing is a distraction. Call me persnickety, but I think she should be able to emulate the proper hand motions and placement on the instrument, especially when it is a vital piece of her character's story.
Janice and Simoes glide seamlessly between addressing the audience directly and talking with each other or another scene partner. Ruth and Ernesto are soulmates, but his sexual preference puts the kibosh on their romantic pairing. He meets Bill (Lewis D. Wheeler), the too-perfect man of his dreams, and they become an inseparable trio. Meanwhile, Ruth is deep into therapy and exploring her feelings with Brian. The flow of the storyline is less seamless, bouncing back and forth along a timeline from the 1980s to the present, but the connections between the main characters ground the narrative to the extent that it is grounded, and Jim Petosa's direction draws out strong performances while capably keeping the wheels on the track.
In harmony with the fluidity of the plot line, the set designed by Jon Savage encourages movement from one area to another. There is a living room with sofa center stage in front of an upper tier that houses the therapist's office, and a step down to a small area with table and chairs for a coffee house or restaurant; a spiral staircase leads up to a catwalk where Ernesto and Bill meet to comment on goings-on in the rooms below. The backdrop features a cityscape in black and white, and Alberto Segarra's lighting design changes moods and spotlights different areas as they come into play. Dewey Dellay's composing skills are highlighted by the melodious cello music, but the repeated sound of ringing phones is jarring and shrill and should be toned down. Penney Pinette's costume designs aid in defining the characters.
Diamond's writing style relies on a healthy supply of humor and that's one of the gifts that the playwright give us. It is a necessary release valve as she tackles sexual abuse, HIV, and infidelity, among other issues. Running well over two hours plus intermission, the play feels too long, seeming like it would end a handful of times before it actually did. It is to the credit of Janice, Simoes, and Parent that we can ride The Gift Horse to the end of the trail.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Obehi Janice, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Cloteal L. Horne, Zachary Rice, and Alejandro Simoes)