Flashpoint Theatre gets its new season off to a magnificent start with the premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gripping one-act tragedy Run, Mourner, Run.
McCraney is one of the most original and talented playwrights working in America today, and for scrappy Flashpoint to land Mourner’s first professional production is quite a coup. Flashpoint is an unpredictable company, at times producing plays by dramatists of questionable talent. But when they get their hands on good material, they get memorable results—and Mourner may be Flashpoint’s best production yet.
Adapted from a story by Randall Kenan, Mourner takes place in the backwater southern town of Tims Creek—a place where it’s tough to keep a secret. As in McCraney’s remarkable trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, Mourner’s majestically poetic language is reminiscent of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and incorporates other elements of Greek tragedy like a singing chorus, a single plot and alternating between dialogue and narration, with characters often commenting on their own thoughts and actions.
Percy Terrell (Brian McCann) is an ambitious, immoral man bent on owning all the valuable land in town. Standing in his way is Ray Brown (Gerard Joseph), town undertaker, richest black man in town and current owner of desireable land that’s been in his family for generations. Percy is clearly a villain, reasoning that “niggers shouldn’t own land that pretty,” as he goes about trying to get Ray’s land by any means necessary, which would make Brown the hero—and every good tragic hero needs a fatal flaw.
Ray’s happens to be young men—especially young white men. Percy finds out Ray’s secret, which leads him to give a ride to “a sweet-faced, dark-haired faggot with a broken-down Gran Torino” by the name of Dean Williams (Keith J. Conallen). Dean is a young man with a bleak future—he shares a run-down house with his chronically ill, chain-smoking mother (Amanda Grove) and is too buried in bills to leave his dead-end job at the factory for a job where his sexuality isn’t at odds with local morality. He does have one asset: He’s sexy as hell.
Percy makes the young man an offer: If Dean can get Ray into bed, and the factory foreman’s job (and its hefty salary) is his. From the moment Dean accepts, there is a sense of tragic inevitability—we don’t know exactly what will happen, but we it will definitely end badly for Ray and Dean. And director Matt Pfeiffer keeps the story hurtling toward the inevitable.
McCraney’s script is so alive with vivid imagery that the spare scenic design, a few weatherbeaten white clapboards along the walls, a tire swing and a couple pieces of cheap furniture, are all it takes for us to imagine the entire town of Tims Creek.
Conallen (who has become the go-to actor for Philadelphia’s small companies) is excellent as the desperate Dean. Beneath the beautiful exterior, Conallen suggests the weariness of a lonely, poor young man who has known nothing but despair and has no prospects. Dean’s not a bad guy, but it’s unclear whether he doesn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions or is so desperate for money he doesn’t care.
Joseph’s smooth-talking, arrogant Ray seems at first to be Dean’s opposite in every way. He’s rich, first of all; he likes to show off his impressive collegiate vocabulary the same way he shows off his new Cadillac. Ray looks like an Armani model at a tractor pull compared to most of Tims Creek’s men. But though he has a successful business and a beautiful wife and child, Ray, too, is lonely. Joseph brings a natural charisma, easily suggesting both Ray’s cool confidence and his passion when the two men become romantically involved.
Ray and Dean are complex and perceptively written; if the play has a flaw, it’s that McCraney doesn’t give the same treatment to all his characters. Percy and his sons are fairly stereotypical rednecks, and the only minor character who captures our interest is Ray’s religious wife Gloria, winningly played by young actor Aimé Kelly, who rejects the usual Bible-thumping caricature to present Gloria as compassionate, thoughtful woman.
But still. Mourner is a powerful and compelling production of work by a brilliant young American playwright, and a must for anyone with an interest in contemporary American theater. And since Flashpoint’s ticket prices are among the most affordable in town, nearly everyone can attend what might be the best play to appear on a local stage this season.
Run, Mourner, Run
Through Nov. 20.
2030 Sansom St.