Lucretia Edwards was quite a woman.
She still is, actually, as an elderly grandmother in Leslie Lee's "The First Breeze of Summer." As the matriarch of an extended family and a pillar in her church, she exudes a sense of stability and morality, particularly to her grandsons.
But grandmothers were young once. One of the intriguing aspects of this play, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State's Woods Theatre, is that the past and present march next to each other, giving us a view of Lucretia that acknowledges her resolve, independence and sexuality. As the complex narrative dips into the lives of her family — all taking place within a few days of her birthday — we get specific views of the African-American experience from economic, religious and sociological standpoints.
This production, directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, is a hybrid of sorts. It's part staged reading, with actors sitting in chairs with scripts in front of them. It's also partly staged, with various scenes performed by off-script actors in fully blocked, or acted out, moments. There are no sets. Costumes are minimal, with actors wearing variations of contemporary basic black.
The result is awkward — and somewhat disappointing.
There are parts of the show that do shine, especially as we burrow into a series of flashbacks featuring the young Lucretia (an assured Breayre S. Tender) interacting with the three very different men who fathered her children. In scenes with a smooth-talking young man named Sam (Joshua Slack), a manipulative white man (Dillon Morgan, in a fine performance) and a coal miner-turned-preacher (Myles Bullock, a stellar standout), we get a textured sense of Lucretia's past.
I don't always wholeheartedly agree with Ellis and Tender's choices when it comes to the role — I think this version of young Lucretia doesn't fully acknowledge her strength and resolve and instead plays up too much her sensual side — but it's an emphatic performance.
There also are moments in the present-day scenes that work well. Offering a skilled portrayal is Ryan Woods as Lucretia's older grandson, Nate, who argues with his father, Milton (DeAndre L. Jean-Pierre), about the direction of the family construction business.
Overall, however, the staged-reading approach is problematic. Part of it is the inconsistency with which the approach is used. While the flashbacks are all fully staged, the scenes in present day are sometimes fully blocked and sometimes not. In a pivotal scene late in the show between Lou (Sam Morgan, Jr.), the younger grandson, and Lucretia as grandmother (Deziree Dukes, who struggles to convincingly play someone so much older), for example, much of the emotional impact is lost with the concert-style staging.
Lost, too, is a sense of the time period in which all this occurs. Ellis notes the era as "contemporary" in the program, which is awkward. "The First Breeze of Summer" was written in 1975, and setting the present-day scenes of the play almost 40 years later than that — or even in a "timeless" period — feels artificial. The playwright's take on race relations, economics and homosexuality is meant, in my view, to be anchored in a specific time period, and to remove that context is odd.
This applies to the flashbacks as well. For Lucretia to survive as a black single mother in the 1920s and 1930s — that's when I'm guessing she was young — adds another layer to her remarkable story. Without period costumes and a scenic design that helps distinguish between the two time periods in the play, the script — which already wasn't as cohesive as it could have been — has its impact diluted.
The question remains why Fresno State's theater department needs to put up an awkward production like this. (In an interview in advance of the show, Ellis pointed to budgetary-related cutbacks that have hobbled the department as a primary reason for the concert-style staging.) The department has full-time faculty members teaching scenic, costume and lighting/sound design. And the university seems to have gotten past its biggest budget woes of recent years. I don't understand.
"The First Breeze of Summer," 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11-12, Woods Theatre, Fresno State. fresnostate.edu/theatrearts, (559) 278-7512. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.