Gem of the Ocean

This patchwork of touching stories is a must-see examination of freedom

Written in 2003, but taking place in post-Emancipation Pittsburgh in 1904, the ninth in August Wilson's 10-play cycle examines freedom in a patchwork of touching stories. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has created intriguing characters whose lives overlap in extraordinary ways. Aunt Ester, a mystical 285-year-old, lives with a handyman named Eli and a laundress named Black Mary, both loyal caregivers and friends. An urgent knock at the door reveals Citizen, a young man in desperate search of Aunt Ester's cleansing powers and sage advice. He's invited to stay at their home, where he helps Eli build a wall, learns of town news from friendly passers-by Solly and Selig, crosses Caesar (the local constable), and eventually travels to the City of Bones to confront his past and undergo a spiritual transformation. Michael Carnahan's exquisite set is a fitting backdrop for the interplay between history and spirituality. The interior of Aunt Ester's house at 1839 Wylie Ave. features beautiful wood, a dramatically steep staircase, ornately textured walls, and lace curtains draped over stained-glass windows. The entire space of the theater brims with lively story and riveting performance. Michele Shay (as Aunt Ester) and Roslyn Ruff (as Black Mary) deliver particularly powerful realizations of Wilson's women. Gem is a must-see -- or, in my case, a must-see-twice.

 
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