The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry — Image via flickr.com

The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry

Pillsbury House Theatre
Directed by Marion McClinton

Playwright Marcus Gardley spent seven years working on The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry, which is currently receiving its area premiere at the Pillsbury House Theatre. Upon viewing the play, one can understand the reasons for its long gestation period. Gardley’s work is — to use a much-abused word — truly epic in scope, striving to concentrate an immense volume of ideas about history and identity into a story that mostly takes place in a single location, featuring a small group of characters.

The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry — Image via flickr.comThe Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry is set in Freetown, Oklahoma, a fictionalized version of Wewoka, current capital of the Seminole Nation. Wewoka was originally settled in 1849 by a group of Black Seminoles, escaped slaves who had previously settled among the Seminoles in Florida before the tribe’s forced relocation to Oklahoma. In Gardley’s version, the founding fathers of Freetown are Horse Power (James Craven), an elder of mixed black and Seminole heritage; Trowbridge (Jake Waid), a pure-blood Seminole who becomes the town sheriff; and Number Two (Ansa Akyea), a black farmer who settles outside the borders of the town after losing out on the sheriff position. Much of the play’s plot is driven by the long rivalry between Number Two and Trowbridge — whose interpersonal history is revealed in a series of flashbacks — and the brief romance between Number Two’s daughter, Sweet Tea (Traci Allen), and Trowbridge’s son, Goodbird (Santino Craven).

Over the course of the play, one learns a great deal about the multitude of forces dividing the residents of Freetown into ever-shifting rival camps. Race remains a potent contributor to the power dynamics between the characters, despite apparently widespread intermarriage between blacks and Seminoles. Patriarchal gender roles are challenged by the ambitions of many of the female characters. Traditional Seminole and syncretic belief systems do battle with a more rigid version of Christianity. And sexual transgression, in multiple manifestations, emerges at several points as a sometimes creative, sometimes destructive force.

The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry — Image via flickr.comThankfully, Gardley’s characters mostly avoid the grim fate of functioning as mere metaphors, exclusively defined by the intersectionality of their various identity categories. As basically the central figure of the play, Number Two gains considerable depth over time, despite Akyea’s tendency to emphasize his menacing qualities by frequently barking out individual words at the top of his lungs. Other characters with some real nuance to them include Number Two’s Seminole wife, Mary South (George Keller), who has a reputation as somewhat of a ditz but actually has a thoughtful, serious side to her, and Trowbridge’s mixed-race wife, Half George (Keli Garrett), a tart-tongued alleged witch whose attempts to impose justice fall short.

Despite The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry‘s mythic qualities, Gardley keeps things from getting too rigorously tragic with a fair dose of humor — which is particularly welcome to the extent that it prevents Horse Power from being just another archetypal wise old man. And the humor is rarely just there for laughs. For instance, immediately after town preacher Fat Rev (Harry Waters, Jr.) whips up the audience to laughter with an irreverent take on the saying of grace, he delivers an unsettling tongue-lashing to his domineering wife, M. Gene (Regina Marie Williams). Little moments of discomfort like this occur throughout the play, revealing Gardley’s efforts to achieve balance between the disparate elements he has placed into a single work. Aided by a fine set of actors, Gardley is mostly successful and always thought-provoking.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.