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See Sty of the Blind Pig

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In her south-side Chicago apartment, matriarch Weedy Warren (Deborah Oliver Artis) waits for her spinster daughter Alberta (Cheray Dawn Josiah) to get home from work. She rocks fitfully in her chair by the open window, clutching a Bible to her bosom as if drawing its strength straight into her. Weedy likes to worry — but even more, she likes to control. If she's not fussing over Alberta, she needles her brother Doc (Wayne DeHart), an inveterate gambler and drinker whose better days are long past. He's out of money again and would hit up Weedy for more, but she's too wise to his tricks. Weedy mocks him as a "whiskey head" and disparages his wearing gloves on a warm day. But Doc's rakish air and smart-alecky backtalk put us right into his pocket. He may be a rogue and a dreamer, but he's also a charmer.

Alberta's not so fortunate. She hasn't inherited any of her uncle's devil-may-care attitude. Skittish and stiff, with her hair tightly pulled back, she's all angles and tics. Prickly and on edge, she retreats into the kitchen and helps herself to the same bottle Doc did. Something's not quite right in the uptight Warren household, and this '50s black family is about to become unmoored with the arrival of street singer Blind Jordan (Timothy Eric). When he knocks on Weedy's door looking for a woman from New Orleans he's trailed to Chicago, their lives transform.

Playwright Phillip Hayes Dean keeps us mesmerized with this intriguing, finely wrought comedy/drama, a New York Drama Desk winner from 1971. Sty of the Blind Pig, now playing at the Ensemble Theatre, begins with old-fashioned naturalism but soon morphs into something akin to magical realism. Once he's captivated us with the character-driven plot and chatty dialogue, Dean begins to weave in poetry and odd dramatic bits. The way he reveals information is so dexterous, we hardly notice, but he's a most competent juggler and manages to keep the play fragile and concrete at the same time.

Info

Sty of the Blind Pig

Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Through April 13. $18-$27.

The Warrens are on the verge of momentous social history but don't realize it. At the end of Act II, Weedy takes a church trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where she witnesses the famous "bus boycott" that will usher in the modern civil rights movement. She returns complaining about sore feet and all the young people who have let their hair go natural. Her generation, steeped in religion if not calcified by it, can't grasp the significance of what's happening. The great moment passes her by. It passes them all. When Doc plays Blind Jordan's lucky numbers, he wins big and rashly decides to head to Memphis, where "they'd better not bring that foolishness" — meaning, the bus protests. Flashing his winnings, he's beaten and robbed before he gets on the train.

Alberta's too introspective and vulnerable to see history right in front of her, but she is cleansed by Blind Jordan. In a tour de force monologue, pouring forth emotion as she relives the funeral of an unrequited love, she quakes, trembles and speaks in tongues as her sexual frustration overpowers her. It's one of Dean's many dramatic surprises — a beautiful, strange moment that's unexpected yet so telling. As she delivers this powerhouse soliloquy, Josiah is, quite simply, ­staggering.

Although Weedy isn't given as showy a set piece as Alberta's confessional, Artis keeps her character front and center at all times. The ultimate passive-aggressive, Weedy uses a mother's love as blackmail, always threatening to move out. With her brittle edges softened by smiles, a twinkling eye and promises of ice cream, she browbeats Alberta with a velvet fist. She's most dangerous when cornered; if Alberta pushes, Weedy lashes out. When she threatens to knock Alberta "clear to next week," we know she means it.

A consummate pro, Wayne DeHart is so at home onstage, it's impossible for him to give a bad performance. Doc, the loveable wastrel, is another of his distinguished, full-bodied portraits. Listen to that distinctive rasp of a voice and his veteran's precise timing as he tosses off the line, "I ain't never coming back to Chicago — not in this life anyway." As an actor, he knows just how far to go — and when to draw back — to make his point; he never makes a false or extraneous gesture. As they say of the best actors, he is always "in the moment."

It's difficult to play a symbol and make it real, yet Timothy Eric as Blind Jordan — who arrives at the Warrens' like fate personified — succeeds in giving this deus ex machina a sexy, mysterious presence. As a legendary blues musician, however, he almost blows it when he fumbles through his guitar playing. Blind or not, he's only supposed to have two thumbs.

Led by the strong direction of Eileen Morris and overlaid with the Ensemble Theatre's patented class, Sty of the Blind Pig is a rare work of poetry and power. This provocative play gives theater a good name.

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