I didn't think I was going to make it but I finally got down to AART's "Charcoal Street" Friday night at Dogwood Dell. And I was glad I did. In my opinion, the show has many problematic elements but it has a rock-solid backbone and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to get choked up at one or all of the many heartstring-pulling moments in the second act.
In a post that I wrote a couple of months ago (that some may remember only too well), I had responded to a challenge from Derome Scott Smith, AART's artistic director and the playwright responsible for "Charcoal Street," and said, "if you deliver a production in which no actor drops or muffs a line, no cue is missed, and no technical problem is obvious (all within the reasonable margin of error that I extend EVERY production) , I’ll be more than happy to write glowing remarks about it." I am very happy to report that Mr. Smith largely succeeded in delivering the goods with "Charcoal Street" (of course, there were a couple of sound problems, but that goes with the territory at the Dell). The T-D review mentioned some stumbling in line readings on opening night -- and there were still a couple of rough spots on Friday -- but overall, it was a very good, tight production. And several aspects of it were downright transcendent.
The story is incredibly compelling and the scope of it is perfect for the stage. Mr. Smith sets up the situation (two brothers living on the street, subsisting on the sales of the younger brother's artwork) well and adds in some nicely complimentary characters with Brick (Toney Q. Cobb) and Madam (Sharalyn Bailey). The inherent drama in the situation is balanced well with some great comic moments, many of them thanks to Mr. Cobb's spot-on performance. Bailey infuses her character with warmth and intelligence; you can't help but love Madam. And a real delight for me was watching Iman Shabazz as the preacher Mr. Gilliam. His character is almost too good to be true, but Shabazz has that inner light -- and a sweet, mellifluous voice -- to make you believe in his saintly champion of the homeless.
The bulk of the show, though, rests on the shoulders of the two brothers, Justin Delaney as the artist Nelson and Laurent St. Giles as the caretaker and businessman Quincy (or, as Brick says it, "Quin-say"). Delaney has a wonderful vulnerability and sensitivity that leaves no doubt that he could be the artist he portrays. St. Giles is a vibrant performer and does his best work when he is trying to reconcile his fierce love for his brother with his determination to get off the streets. He also has a great set of abs that I heard a couple girls swooning over as I left the show.
I truly enjoyed the show but I also thought it could stand a little work. There was quite a bit of telling-vs-showing, particularly in the more "talky" second act. But even in the first act, there was talk about "the streets," almost as if they were a character in the show, but only a sporadic sense of the challenges of being on the streets coming through. The nightmare scene with the brothers shivering in their sleeping bags was one of them. The backstory for most of the characters came out in big expositionary chunks; I would have liked it more if some of the character revelation came out in more organic ways. Quincy's success in the second act seemed too pat; is transition from years on the street to organizational success that easy? Finally, while I loved the literary references, a couple of them seemed a little shoe-horned in (e.g., the Medea reference in the second act). When Mr. Gilliam turned over the keys to Quincy at the top of the second act I thought of the bishop in "Les Mis." Whether an intended reference or not, it's a great moment.
But the trump card in the whole production was really the big finish. As Quincy says, "there are no words for this moment." Bruce Miller likened it to the end of "Quilters." If I might be so bold, I'd suggest the finale engineered by director L. Roi Boyd III has an even bigger impact. You get some sense of what the final quilt is going to look like throughout "Quilters;" when you see those "Charcoal Street" drawings all at once for the first time, you almost can't take it all in.
So, as I said above, I am very happy to report on the strength of this last production of AART's season. I will look forward to their 08-09 season eagerly and try my darndest to see more of their shows. If "Charcoal Street" is part of an upward ascendancy, there should be some very good work to talk about.