Playwright Marcus Gardley is rightly celebrated for the roiling stew of poetry and pathos in his mythopoetic narratives and for the insight and sensitivity he brings.
His main challenge — one that is not uncommon among gifted writers — is keeping his dynamic language in the service of the play.
His last play in the Twin Cities was the rangy epic “The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry,” which had a sold-out run in 2013 at Pillsbury House Theatre. That venue is playing host to another Gardley work, “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” which opened Friday.
On its surface, this potently lyrical one-act is about the horror and grief that violence visits on the families of victims and perpetrators. Gardley, the son of an Oakland, Calif., minister, undergirds this urban story with biblical personae, as if to say that there is an age-old spiritual war at work here.
These include Mary (Thomasina Petrus), her ex-husband, Joseph (James A. Williams), and their young adult son, Emmanuel, or Manny (Namir Smallwood). Shortly after singing “Ave Maria” at the White House, Manny is shot by a young man who wants his Air Jordan sneakers. His death leaves a hole in his family.
Meanwhile, his killer, Noel (also played by Smallwood), is someone who’s trying to fit in and to find purpose. He is led astray by an older, gangbanging relative (Williams again — three of the show’s four actors play multiple roles). Noel’s mother, Miriam (Aimee K. Bryant), gets together awkwardly with Mary in attempts at reconciliation and healing.
The play starts brilliantly, with a witty direct address to the audience. Gardley sustains that imaginative, authentic language through most of the 90-minute drama before it runs out of steam. Perhaps hewing too close to his biblical inspiration, “Lovingkindness” becomes hortatory and preachy, although the delivery remains affecting.
Director Marion McClinton, a master of transitions and of finding the affecting humanity of his characters, works with a crew of regulars for this effort. Each actor makes excellent choices. Petrus, who has showed her formidable talent in a battery of roles in recent years, digs deep to portray Mary as a vessel of grief, seemingly anchored but in search of solace. We feel her hurt.
Smallwood also makes us feel deeply for Manny. He’s likable and funny and gone too soon. The actor makes Noel sympathetic, too, even as we resist liking him too much (he’s a killer, after all).
The action plays out on Dean Holzman’s cubist-inspired set, which draws on Romare Bearden’s monumental collage “The Block.” (A reproduction is on display in the theater’s lobby.) Both are colorful settings that serve as backdrops for narratives focused on people.
One of the most loaded moments of “Lovingkindness” happens when the grieving Mary flashes back to a time when she sang a lullaby to Manny. The scene starts out humorously — Manny is clearly an adult, sitting on his mother’s lap — but when she puts him down, we realize his sleep is eternal. It’s subtle, simple and sublime, and it alone is worth a trip to Gardley’s moving show.