As I walked through the Geva Theatre Center lobby past the photograph exhibition of bluesman Son House, taken from the archives of his tour manager Dick Waterman, I was struck by the images of House performing. I couldn't get over the look on his face, his eyes transfixed in an otherworldly mixture of ecstasy and fear as if he were looking into the face of eternal judgment.
This seeming contradiction is at the heart of "Revival: The Resurrection of Son House," a new play by Keith Glover, which received its first public performance in a reading directed by Skip Greer and presented by Geva on Wednesday, August 26, as part of its four-day festival "Journey to the Son: A Celebration of Son House." Essentially a biopic, "Revival" takes a rather comprehensive look at House's life through a series of flashbacks, from his religious conversion as a teenager and numerous marriages and jobs to his Paramount recordings with fellow blues legends Charley Patton and Willie Brown, his time in Rochester, and his return to the blues after a long hiatus.
As one would expect, the poignancy of the play rests firmly on the performance of its lead actor, played here with equal parts authority and empathy by Cleavant Derricks. As written by Glover, Derricks's Son House is a man at once inspired and terrified by his own sins - namely, his habitual drinking, womanizing, and predilection for the blues. Thankfully, Glover does not make what has become a frequent mistake in biographical art, which is to gloss over the subject's shortcomings in favor of a more sanitized version of the story. Instead, the playwright deals with House's failings and fragilities soberly, but with respect and obvious admiration for the man.
At the heart of the drama is House's internal struggle to reconcile his deeply held, ambitious spiritual convictions with his worldly decision to be a bluesman and all the subsequent choices to which that decision leads him. Racked by guilt, House is nonetheless empowered by the blues to tackle the hypocrisy he witnesses in others and in himself. This central theme was handled with great sensitivity and skill by the entire ensemble. Standouts in the cast included Derricks, Nicole Lewis as House's wife Evie, David St. Louis as Charley Patton, and Marc Damon Johnson as Willie Brown.
Of course, music played an integral part of the drama, and it was utilized to satisfying ends as a trio of musicians led by Musical Supervisor Billy Thompson accompanied the golden-throated cast through original Son House songs and additional songs penned by Glover and Thompson.One could call "Revival" a musical, but the songs were neither forced nor arbitrary, and they were so seamlessly interwoven in the story that it felt more operatic in terms of fluidity.
Unfortunately, "Revival" was also operatic in its length. Clocking in at over three hours including intermission, the play is downright Wagnerian in this sense, and would benefit from a good trimming. And while the Son House-as-Christ figure analogy in both the title and some of the scene headings was too heavy-handed, and the play ends on a rather conventional note, "Revival" is a compelling, well-written play that, above all, is a pleasure to watch.
"Journey to the Son: A Celebration of Son House" continues through Saturday, August 29. Visit http://www.gevatheatre.org/ for more information.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.