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Crash on the Levee 

When bad plays happen to good theater companies

Ever wonder why, faced with a prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus didn't choose a pacifist, celibate life? Or why Antigone, witness to stubborn pride that destroyed most of her family, fell in lockstep with that tradition and chose death rather than compromise? Similar questions about fate, pride and stubborn stupidity are raised in Sherry Shepard-Massat's Levee James, presented by the Saint Louis Black Repertory Company.

The design work is excellent. Frank McCullough's set is a cozy, realistic farmhouse, complete with solid pine window- and door-frames and surrounded by a beautifully painted backdrop depicting the forest. Lighting designer Sarah Hughey provides sunlight through trees during the day and cool moonlight at night. The sounds of birds and crickets add to the pleasing atmosphere, while Sarah Kahn Shapiro's costumes provide precise details about each character. But these excellent visuals can't disguise a poor script, and Clyde Ruffin's sloppy direction only serves to magnify the flaws in the text.

A.C. Smith portrays Wesley Slaton, a prosperous Georgia farmer whose father's nickname was Levee James. Wesley's dad died when he refused to abandon the levee he was working on and was swept away by floodwaters. Like his father, Wesley is a hard worker, and stubborn. As the play begins it's 1923; Wesley is a widowed father raising two teenage daughters. He is visited by his sister-in-law, Lily Grace Hoterfield, a ladies' maid who has been away from the small town in which she grew up for some number of years. (The script is rather confusing here; at some points they talk about her being gone for four years, at other times she's been gone since before Wesley married her sister.)

The first act is a slow-moving romance, with Lily and Wesley talking endlessly about people the audience will never meet and don't really care about, including Wesley's daughters, whose absence in the play raises a series of distracting questions (are they hiding? Are they invisible? When they're suddenly referred to as riding away in a car, how did they get there without being seen?). Monica Parks is believable as the world-weary Lily, but her Georgia accent is so thick that much of what she says can't be understood. Ruffin doesn't help anyone by frequently making Parks turn away from the audience, sending her lines up into the trees at the back of the stage. Smith's accent is equally thick, but he faces the audience most of the time, so it's a little easier to make out what he's saying.

Gary E. Vincent plays clownish neighbor Fitzhugh Marvin with good comic timing in Act One, wearing an outlandish checkered suit and two-tone shoes nicely provided by costumer Shapiro. His return to the farmhouse in the second act signals a change in genre -- the love story shifts to tragedy as the bleeding Fitzhugh sips coffee with Lily (who is oblivious to his wound) and steals one of Wesley's guns. What follows spells potential doom for Wesley if he stays on the farm. Ignoring Lily's pleas that he leave, Wesley proves once again that he is his father's son, standing stubbornly in his place to face the oncoming flood of danger.

The play tries to raise Big Questions: Is Wesley a hero or a fool? Can one or two people taking a stand against injustice change the world for the better? Is it better to face known demons or unknown possibilities? But the overly chatty first act squashes interest in Lily and Wesley, and the lack of important supporting characters (like the daughters, or the villainous white neighbor who threatens them) leaves too many holes in the story. What happens to Fitzhugh, Lily and Wesley in this 1923 farmhouse is a realistic re-enactment of social injustice, a sad but true slice of American life. It's subject matter that needs a better script than this. Levee James squanders the ample talents of Smith, Parks and Vincent, not to mention the audience's time.

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