Playwright Brian Grandison clearly has a deep love and respect for the characters who populate his new play, "Adrift on the Mississippi," which History Theatre is producing with Concordia University in St. Paul.

Grandison's affection, however, can't fully elevate his homage to the former slaves who in 1863 worked their way up the river from Missouri to St. Paul, where they founded Pilgrim Baptist Church. Directed by James A. Williams, this earnest and heartfelt pageant suffers from a thin dramatic arc and a static second act that is largely confined to a 12-foot square playing area.

Gavin Lawrence plays Reverend Robert Hickman, a central Missouri slave who has learned to read and write and appears familiar with the Bible. He is being pursued by brutal vigilantes as a runaway when another slave, Thomas, played by the bracing and gruff Joe Nathan Thomas, gives him a helping hand.

Leaving wife and son behind (he'll later return to pick them up), Hickman wrestles his way to Hannibal, where he, Thomas and a family of three other slaves embark on a small raft to head north.

The play has some fine moments. Near the end of the first act, our pioneers step onto their makeshift vessel and we realize Hickman's raft probably wasn't much larger than this. Imagine the peril, and the courage required for such a journey.

Lawrence's Hickman is a leader not by charisma or inspiration. He's actually a bit of a hard case, never too sentimental but always calming -- the dad who tells you to quit crying, it's going to be all right. Thomas is solid throughout as a man dogged by bitter memories and guilt.

As nice as that crowded scramble onto the raft strikes us, the second act is largely captive to that same space. This is where Grandison's play becomes narrated history.

Each of the passengers -- Thomas, Yolande Bruce's Virginia, Adam Western's Fielding and Indira Addington's Adeline -- share stories about their heritage or their source of bitterness while the raft is stuck on a sandbar.

Between these sequences, Hickman finds a reverie where he converses with his wife, played with a natural confidence by Anna Wakefield.

Williams stages the piece matter-of-factly, with just enough emotional flex but little flair. Michael Wangen's lighting shows texture and dimension.

Though Grandison has not written a complex drama, he raises important points. He communicates the slaves' isolation, their real concern about what freedom means. After all, that simple tag did not erase generations of experience and fear. He has honored his subjects.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299