Off-Broadway Review: THE REFUGE PLAYS (Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on October 31, 2023

in Theater-New York


Where does one find refuge? Is it somewhere in this physical world or on the spiritual plane? Or is there some intersectional vortex where the two meet and handily co-exist? Possibly in a hand-hewn house with no address, maybe off the grid and deep in the Illinois woods? In Nathan Alan Davis’ sprawling new stage trilogy The Refuge Plays, currently running at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center, multiple generations of one African-American family struggle with these very questions. Produced by The Roundabout Theatre in association with New York Theatre Workshop, Davis’s engrossing new work spans seven decades in reverse; birthing a variety of characters, both living and dead, all related by blood or trauma or dreams or circumstances, speaking Davis’s absorbing words that are both natural and poetic. Featuring an impressive and deeply talented cast who are solidly guided by Patricia McGregor’s exquisite, near-perfect direction, audiences will surely find solace in the familiar people centered in this intelligent, well-crafted, language play.

Inside a homey but simple house in the woods of southern Illinois, sleep one family in two rooms. The family’s seventy-something matriarch, Early, sleeps on an armchair in the main room. Her thirty-something granddaughter, Joy, sleeps on the couch next to her. Joy’s seventeen-year old son, Ha-Ha, sleeps on the floor between them in a sleeping bag. In the only bedroom, Joy’s mom and Early’s daughter-in-law, the fifty-something Gail, sleeps alone in a double bed. Her rural husband, Walking Man, was recently killed in a job when a cow he was trying to slaughter inadvertently fell on top of him. But Walking Man’s ghost visits the family pretty regularly; conversing with his loved ones as if he was still alive.

Jon Michael Hill (Walking Man) and Nicole Ari Parker (Early)

Once the family is up and about in the morning, it’s revealed that during the night, Walking Man has informed one of his relatives that one of them will be dying soon. The family is surprisingly underwhelmed by the news. Perhaps because they have almost daily contact with the spirit world, death — at least in the abstract — is not so scary. That is until this specific death draws near and fear and confusion concerning how this shift will affect those still alive abounds. Besides, how does one tie up life’s loose ends with only a few days notice?

Jon Michael Hill (Walking Man) and Jessica Frances Dukes (Gail)

In the second play, we are some twenty years earlier when Walking Man is early twenties and Gail is a college student. Instead of being inside the house, we’re in the yard out front, still surrounded by trees. We learn why Walking Man literally walks so much, sometimes to other states. We also meet Edward aka “Crazy Eddie” who is Walking Man’s father and Early’s husband. Edward was wounded in World War II and is still mobile. However, he refused to have the bullets removed from his body (hence his self-imposed nickname). There’s more family secrets, a couple more ghosts, a water pump that grows out of the ground like a tree and a very accepted gay uncle named Dax. We also encounter a forty-something Early and get glimpses into why the cantankerous, insensitive, demanding yet loving older woman we met in the first play is the way she is. The third play in the trilogy is just a young Eddie recently home from the war, a teenage Early, Baby Walk Walk (eventually Walking Man) just 6 months old and maybe the ghost of a bear. There’s no house or yard, only a clearing in the woods. We learn the daunting circumstances that brought these entities together and why Early will never leave her chosen place of refuge.

Nicole Ari Parker (Early) and Daniel J. Watts (Crazy Eddie)

A few paragraphs in a stage review can hardly do justice to the dense, funny, moving, heightened, fascinating journey the playwright has created. To produce the superb material of this family’s story, Davis weaves the warp of their struggles with the woof of their hopes (adding a little magical realism for trimming) and produces a theatrical garment that is visceral, intellectual and vastly entertaining. McGregor’s direction supports Davis’s writing by basically being invisible, letting the writer’s words and her actors’ performances take the lead. However, this powerhouse production would not be possible without the strong container that holds and shapes this show, which McGregor so meticulously crafted.

Daniel J. Watts (Crazy Eddie) and Lance Coadie Williams (Dax)

In a company full of remarkable actors, television star Nicole Ari Parker stuns as the family’s point of origin, Early. Eschewing her usual physical glamour, Parker digs deeps and presents a woman who has stoically survived the vicissitudes of life through sheer determination. As Gail, Jessica Francis Dukes is fantastic. While Early is the family matriarch, the middle-aged Gail is heavily burdened with the day-to-day family operation; trudging along with a resilient sense of humor and a strong sense of responsibility. When Gail later appears as her much younger, bubblier, pre-burdened self, Dukes’ transformation is so complete it’s hard to believe she is the same actress. Jon Michael Hill is funny and moving as the tightly wound Walking Man, often fighting the outside world when his real battle is internal. As Crazy Eddie, Daniel J. Watts is charming and rock-solid as that “everyman” kind of blue-collar guy who understands the world, his place in it and the woman he loves.

Production values are all top notch, especially Arnulfo Maldonado’s permeable house design that suggests the divide between the living and the dead is much easier traversed than we realize. Also, Stacy Derosier’s evocative use of sidelight beautifully illuminates the action while also suggesting an easy relationship between life and death.

While not really a ghost story, The Refuge Plays suggests that our deceased loved ones are still accessible and affected by us and we by them. And while we all seek comfort from time to time, perhaps the best place of refuge is the one we create for ourselves. So do yourself a favor and go find solace with Early and her family in the woods. It’s a trip worth taking regardless if you are alive or dead.

Jessica Frances Dukes (Gail) and Ngozi Anyanwu (Joy)

photos by Joan Marcus, 2023

The Refuge Plays
Roundabout Theatre Company
in associate with New York Theatre Workshop
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center
Tues-Sun at 7; Wed and Sat at 1; Sun at 2
ends on November 12, 2023
for tickets, ($49-$99) call 212.719.1300 or visit Roundabout

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