In the first act of The Refuge Plays, Nathan Alan Davis’ massive family saga, the elderly matriarch Early (the magnificent Nicole Ari Parker) advises her great-grandson Ha-Ha (yes, that’s his name, played with sweet innocence by JJ Wynder) to read and re-read Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of African-American alienation, Invisible Man. She tells Ha-Ha that Ellison writes in code and you have to experience the book many times to crack the code and find the author’s meaning. The same could be said for Davis’s ambitious, multi-generational work (now at Roundabout Theater Company’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels space in a co-production with New York Theater Workshop). In three related acts, traveling in reverse chronological order, Davis tells the multi-generational tale of Early’s family and their house in the middle of the woods in Southern Illinois (the refuge of the title). It’s not always easy to discern his intent.
The journey is full of magical realism and symbolism. Dead relatives appear dressed in white, a young man walks all the way from Illinois to Alaska, pumps mysteriously produce water with no apparent means of connection to underground springs, and a new mother kills a bear and hibernates like one. The characters have significant names like the previously noted Ha-Ha and Early as well as Joy, Crazy Eddy, Symphony, and Walking Man.
At first, Davis’ coded messages seem absurd and pretentious. In the first act which takes place in the present, Gail (Early’s daughter-in-law, strongly played by Jessica Frances Dukes) receives nocturnal visits from her late husband Walking Man (Early’s son), warning her that she is going to soon join him on the other side. Her biggest worry is who will run the isolated family dwelling and care for the elderly Early, Gail’s unemployed adult daughter Joy (a warm Ngozi Anyanwu), and grandson Ha-Ha (who appears to be directionless and socially challenged.) The issue doesn’t seem particularly important and the characters don’t have strong objectives. Just as Gail gets another message from the beyond that her time is nigh, Ha-Ha brings home a quirky young woman named Symphony, who is full of giggles and bizarre anecdotes. Mallory Taylor Johnson tries her best to infuse this affected character with a degree of believability, but falls short.
These weird proceedings don’t have a collective impact, adding up to only some mild laughs. Director Patricia McGregor fails to provide strong staging and a reason for us to care about what happens to this strange family. The only segment that resonates deeply is Walking Man’s gripping monologue about how he died—being crushed by a cow he was preparing to slaughter in his capacity as a farm worker—delivered with subtle intensity by Jon Michael Hill.
In the second much more powerful act, we travel back to the 1970s and find the much younger (and alive) Walking Man returning to the Illinois homestead to seek his identity after that trek to Alaska and many other locations. Along with Early, we meet Walking Man’s dad, Crazy Eddie, suffering from several bullet wounds received in World War II, and Dax, Crazy Eddie’s gay brother on his way to Paris presumably to lead a more open life. Dax and Walking Man are the ones to receive supernatural visitations in this act. The ghosts of Clydette and Reginald (Lizan Mitchell and Jerome Preston Bates), Early’s parents, have messages to deliver to Walking Man about his true heritage that leads to an explosive confrontation between the young man and his mother.
The connections and intentions of the characters are much clearer and more forcefully limned and McGregor’s staging is simpler and cleaner. Lance Coadie Williams’ Dax is especially compelling, particularly in a monologue delivered to his nephew about the carelessness of male lovers, exposing a long-ago liaison which ended tragically.
The final act, a two-hander between Crazy Eddie and Early, set in the 1950s at the site of their future home, is the most moving and effective of all three segments. Early is living in the woods with the baby Walking Man and Crazy Eddie has quit his grocery-store job to seek her out. Daniel J. Watts as Crazy Eddie and Parker as Early skillfully enact this delicate dance of attraction and wariness. McGregor’s staging is most direct, intimate and immediate here. The long threads of Davis’ complex tapestry finally come together and his theme of establishing one’s own home on one’s own terms have powerful impact.
Arnulfo Maldonado created the basic, evocative set, transformed into both everyday and eerie environments by Stacey Derosier’s lighting. Emilio Sosa designed the decades-spanning costumes, each offering suggestions of the wearer’s views and status.
Three and a half hours is a long time to sit but The Refuge Plays offers rewards to those patient enough to make it through to the end, especially for Parker’s transformative performance of Early from grouchy matriarch to self-determined young woman.