Let's face it: Well-crafted metaphors and beautiful turns of phrases can be seductive, especially if such gems spring from your own imagination. But sometimes a writer's infatuation with his or her own language gets in the way of telling a good story. So it is with "Things of Dry Hours," Naomi Wallace's poetic, dense and ultimately desultory 2004 play that is making its Upper Midwest premiere.
The play, staged by Frank Theatre at the Playwrights' Center, is inspired by historian Robin D.G. Kelley's 1990 work, "Hammer and Hoe: Black Communists in Alabama During the Great Depression." Kelley's book explores the hope for justice and equality that Karl Marx's ideas offered in a 1930s America beset by Depression and deep-seated bigotry. In this context, communism is a beacon for a better existence, especially for those at the bottom of America's racial caste system.
"Dry Hours" revolves around a scruffy, wild-eyed white man and the black family he foists himself on. Corbin Teel (Sam Bardwell), who looks like a deer trying to scamper out of a hunter's cross hairs, is wanted for murder. He takes nervous refuge at the home shared by spunky black widow Cali Hogan (Hope Cervantes), a washerwoman who does laundry for wealthy whites, and her serene father, Tice Hogan (Warren C. Bowles), a laid-off steelworker.
Tice is committed to both Christianity and communism, and the two books he wants to share with Corbin are the Bible and Marx's "The Communist Manifesto." Cali is a wise, Delphic woman with a stolid exterior and secret longing. Corbin is hungry and horny, and wants food and more from Cali.
The drama is embedded in their tense interracial interaction, which breaks social conventions. Cali is especially empowered, and, at one point, smears shoe polish on Corbin's face and porridge on her own to show the reversal of race-coded power in their dealings. But the question remains: Will the white interloper's skin privilege trump the black family's power?
Bowles stepped into the role of Tice three days before opening, after actor James Craven had to drop out on doctors' orders. Bowles was still on book for a significant portion of the show last weekend, but he revealed the heart of a character who wants to remake the world in ideal ways.
Cervantes is noteworthy for just her focus and commitment. Performing with earthy honesty in clearly difficult circumstances, she gives us a Cali whose fierce exterior guards a heart of gold. Bardwell's Corbin has a feral, manic energy leaking out of his hungry soul. His scrawniness aids in leveling the field.
Wendy Knox's direction dramatizes the work but does not bring much clarity to it beyond the fact that there were black communists in 1930s Alabama drawn to the promise of equality and justice.
If "Dry Hours" gets stuck, it's because of Wallace's script — meditative poetry that revolves around an idea but never takes off. The well-intentioned but muddled play feels like its source material, and rarely moves beyond the academic.