Marcus Gardley’s “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry” is a size 15 play in a size 9 theater.
The mythic drama, which premiered Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, makes the 99-seat playhouse seem like a shoe that is bursting at the seams.
Director Marion McClinton uses all three aisles in the theater for entrances and exits for his 11 actors in multiple roles. His directorial choice helps make “The Road Weeps” an immersive experience that is at once thrilling and worrying. You hope the performers don’t trip as they bound up and down the stairs.
Gardley’s metaphor-infused epic has stunning writing, its lyrical and witty passages sometimes suggesting a Great Plains Shakespeare. “The Road Weeps” also is a Greek-style saga-cum-small-town-soap opera that requires a flow chart to keep track of all the relations and all with ways that folks have wronged each other.
The play, which has an adult-themed backstory, is set around the Civil War in Wewoka, Okla., a town established by blacks and Seminoles who are seeking freedom and a place where they will not be dispossessed. Like many a small town, Wewoka has its rococo secrets and inter-generational conflicts.
Number Two (Ansa Akyea), a former slave, has risen, through warrior strength, to become town sheriff. The ambition that he has pursued blindly means that he has to take out the previous sheriff, Trowbridge (Jake Waid), with whom he has intimate history. There also is medicine man Horse Power (James Craven), whose beliefs are challenged by a Christianity embodied by Fat Rev. (Harry Waters in prosthetic fat suit) and his independent-minded wife, M. Gene. (Regina Marie Williams).
Sweet Tea (Traci Allen), who is both Black and Seminole, has a child by Goodbird (Santino Craven), also a Black Seminole. That child, named Wonderful (Santino Craven) is taken away by Half George (Keli Garrett), sheriff Trowbridge’s wife whom everyone calls a witch.
The narrative also weaves in a onetime Casanova named Colorado (H. Adam Harris), Number Two’s wife, Mary South (George Keller), and Young Number Two (Darius Dotch).
Many members of the show’s terrific acting company have memorable moments in this production. Williams’ earthy, spirit-tugging singing radiates righteous strength. Akyea displays power both in his vocals and in his bare physicality. His Number Two destroyswarriors like a bald-headed Samson. Waters’ Fat Rev. is a funny, waddling sight. Harris delivers with passion and honesty.
“The Road Weeps” often feels unfocused and overburdened. It is so artful in places, it feels almost too much like a series of metaphors given human flesh. As those humans, in turn, struggle with and against forces beyond their control, they sometimes appear real and sometimes appear like shadows on a cave wall.
“The Road Weeps” is so laden with subplots and characters, it seems to carry excess weight. If it shed a few things, it would be in much better shape.