In one of the tensest early moments in "The Brothers Size," Ogun Size warns his younger brother, Oshoosi, about getting into trouble again.
"Don't do something to put your [self] back in the pen," Ogun says, angering Oshoosi.
"While I'm here, let me be free," Oshoosi (Namir Smallwood) yells at Ogun (James A. Williams). "I've got enough memories to wash out without you putting in a fresh supply every five minutes."
In other scripts or directorial hands, these siblings might have come to blows. But it is not necessary to show physical violence in Tarell Alvin McCraney's eloquent drama, which had its powerfully affecting opening Saturday at the Guthrie Theater.
The threat of force, from the personal to the systemic, informs the dreams and waking hours of these men as they wrestle with the meaning of brotherly love. Complicating things is the haunting presence of Elegba (Gavin Lawrence), Oshoosi's best friend from prison.
Written when the playwright was just 25, "Brothers Size" was McCraney's announcement of his remarkable gifts. The 80-minute one-act is chronologically first in McCraney's break-out, Bayou-set Brother/Sister trilogy.
Last year the same director, Marion McClinton, and production team (Pillsbury House Theatre and the Mount Curve Company), gave us "In the Red and Brown Water," the second show in the trilogy. Their new effort will be similarly remembered.
McClinton's heart-rendingly poetic production has a minimal but efficacious design. Andrea Heilman gives us layered platforms that are used variously for beds and Ogun's shop. The workman's clothes are by Kalere Payton, and the mood-altering lights by Michael Wangen.
Choreographer Patricia Brown harmonized the three actors' movements, which included a stylized high-stepping march and some Temptations-style dancing, while Ahanti Young, hitherto known as a fine interpreter of August Wilson characters, gives "Brothers Size" its rhythmic heartbeat by playing percussion on an elevated drum set.
Director McClinton has gotten excellent all-around performances from his three stars. Williams' Ogun, named for the god of iron in the West Africa-derived Yoruba religion, is a character of solid character. He may be misguided or unhelpful, but his rightness, not to mention big heart, cannot be denied.
Smallwood's Oshoosi seems to compensate for his reed thinness with oversized spice. A strong but swayable showboat, he moves with a pronounced pimp walk to mask not just his vulnerability, but also his need for love.
Elegba relishes the connections that he and Oshoosi made in the crucible of prison, something that does not seem possible on the outside. So Elegba has to find a vehicle to make that love possible again. Lawrence's Elegba works his will and his way masterfully, in part because of the honesty, warmth and polish of the actor's delivery. Lawrence helps "The Brothers Size" to set lofty goals for this new theater season.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston