In one vivid scene in "The Amen Corner," which had its tambourine-shaking, foot-stomping opening over the Mother's Day weekend at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, a wife and husband touch tenderly for the first time in years.
Sister Margaret Alexander (Greta Oglesby) and her musician-husband Luke (Hannibal Lokumbe) sit uneasily on the edge of her bed. As he holds her hand, she fidgets and pulls away. She is torn between God, whom she believes one should serve above all else, and her musician-husband, who has returned to see her and is gravely ill.
For Sister Margaret, a pastor for a storefront Harlem congregation, being wrapped up in the service of the Lord has not offered vision or inner peace. She's bound and blinded by her religiosity even as some elders in her congregation plot her ouster. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old son that she has raised as a single mother is beginning to spread his wings, to her displeasure, in the world.
"Amen Corner," James Baldwin's first play, is impressive for its meatiness. It packs many issues into three hours -- conflicts between the spiritual and the carnal, pastor and congregation, parent and child. The drama is suffused with themes that Baldwin, a disgruntled onetime preacher, dealt with in other writings, including the hypocrisy and holier-than-thou mores in so many churches.
The Wurtele Thrust stage, where this Penumbra Theatre production of "Amen Corner" takes place, offers a beguiling intimacy but has pitfalls. Director Lou Bellamy largely succeeds in making the stage work for the show, including in the blocking. If the action seemed remote early on, it's because of the placement of the pulpit in Vicki Smith's multi-tiered set. She set it back a bit in this brownstone-less Harlem milieu where a church sits next to a liquor store and where the colorful characters (all dressed by Mathew LeFebvre), include beggars, purse-snatchers and partying sailors.
The production, whose crisp sound and subtle lighting were done respectively by Scott Edwards and Don Darnutzer, has commendable acting. The honor roll is headed by Oglesby, who is powerful as the austere Sister Margaret. In carriage and authority, Oglesby gives us a woman of stern righteousness who places everything on the altar and who, in turn, is left bereft.
Austene Van is sublime as church elder Sister Moore, a declared virgin for Jesus and superb schemer who works her will in the church. Van delights in embodying this character who, through intonation and gesture, communicates the opposite of what she says. Both Dennis Spears and Thomasina Pretrus (dressed in green early on by LeFebvre to resemble a head of cabbage) also delight, as does Crystal Fox as Odessa, Sister Margaret's commonsense, single sister.
Lokumbe is not known for his acting, but he mostly pulls off his breathy, one-note character. Still, his acting does not match his searing musicianship. Every time he puts the trumpet to his mouth, he lights up the stage.
The overall métier of Bellamy's production is its cultural authenticity. The music, augmented by a spirited gospel choir from Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, gives juice to this production, turning the Guthrie into a church that often says "Amen."