The Signature Theater Company’s terrific production of Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer launches their 2008/2009 season dedicated to the historic Negro Ensemble Company, a fertile home for African-Americans writers and actors for decades. Nicely directed by the esteemed Ruben Santiago-Hudson the touching revival of Leslie Lee’s ambitious pot boiler features a skilled ensemble headed by the impressive Leslie Uggams. She portrays Gremmar Edwards, the matriarch at the center of the well crafted tale about three generations of a middle class African/American family living in a small suburb of Philadelphia.
The engaging story takes place over a steamy three day period in June as Gremmar interacts with her two grandsons Lou and Nate (played by real life brothers Jason Dirden and Brandon Dirden), and her own grown children: the boys’ father Milton (Keith Randolph Smith) and their Aunt Edna (Brenda Pressley). Many others will come into the household and religion will be a vital ingredient. The family will even hold a spiritual revivall singing the praises of Jesus right in the living room. All the while Gremmar will continuously lapse back in time to her memories of the three great loves of her life, the men who fathered her children, but never married her.
The flashback sequences in the handsome staging have a magical quality to them and the graceful Yaya DaCosta making her stage debut as the younger Gremmar, when she was called Lucretia, is remarkable. Although the heart of the story is the relationship between Gremmar and Nate, her youngest grandson struggling with his values and his sexuality, the complex drama diverts into many directions and themes. But hypocrisy and the cost of our choices are cornerstones that resonate solidly.
Actor turned director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an accomplished interpreter of August Wilson, doesn’t do as well with Lee’s Breeze as he did last season with his superb revival of Wilson’s Seven Guitars. He allows many of the scenes to wallow into a crescendo of over wrought emotions, which doesn’t serve the delicacy of the play’s rhythms. There are many affecting moments however, and the cast, although uneven in their struggles with the playwright’s complex characterizations, are effective.
John Earl Jelks as the last of Lucretia’s loves, the shy Harper Edwards a mine worker studying to be a minister is a standout. He turns in a memorable performance that captures the character’s dichotomy and the detailed nuances beneath the play’s surface.
The play debuted Off-Broadway in 1975 winning an Obie Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award before moving to Broadway for a brief spell. Unfortunately the bittersweet melodrama played the cavernous Palace Theater and hasn’t been seen since. Here at the Peter Norton Space the fit is intimate, which works well for the powerful staging of the naturalistic drama.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
The First Breeze of Summer opened on August 21, 2008 at the Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenue. Tickets are available at HYPERLINK "http://www.signaturetheatre.org" www.signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529 or at the theatre box office.
Photo: Richard Termine