When the Levee Aches

Levee James begins as a fond family reminiscence, with a woman visiting her brother-in-law and his children on a cotton farm in rural Georgia. This, the first of four scenes, should be when playwright S.M. Shephard-Massat gets his exposition out of the way: who Levee James is, what has brought this pretty young woman home from Atlanta, and where her sister has gone. But at last Thursday night's production, the scene of Levee James was delivered in an archaic patois so thick it was almost unintelligible.

The situation clarified later on — in the second scene and beyond, everything was easy on the ears — but even after the play, I heard audience members complain that although they had caught the gist of what was going on and had been caught up in the drama, they hadn't been able to grasp the specifics. This is a big problem.

Get past it. Dig in your heels, listen hard, and try to flow with the language. Beneath the accent and lingo, Shephard-Massat's play is lyrical, heart-warming, and unexpectedly frightening, and nobody should miss it because of a language barrier. Levee James begins as a portrait of two good, unremarkable people discussing family matters and flirting with the idea of falling in love. When it turns into something else, the eruption of tragedy at the play's heart comes with the swiftness and brutality of real life. Levee James' strength is in its resolute ordinariness, its lack of obvious drama, and the way its plot unfolds without seeming plotted. It is at its best when it doesn't seem like a play at all.

Which is to say, the rest of Levee James is wonderful; scenes two, three, and four come as a relief after the brain-grinding frustrations of the first scene. During that interminable, foggy crawl across the stage, I was deeply concerned about the M Ensemble's casting choices, particularly Viviene Dawson, who plays the visiting sister-in-law, Lily Grace Hoterfield. She seemed no more comfortable with the archaic language than I was, and to compensate, she attempted grafting random conversational rhythms onto the script without any care for where her emphases might fall. Imagine if Franklin Roosevelt had said, "Yesterday, December 7 ... 1941! A date which? Will live in. Infamy!" and you begin to understand.

From that first scene, here's what I was able to gather: There is a certain, limited romantic history between Hoterfield and her brother-in-law, Wesley Slaton; that "Levee" James was either Hoterfield or Slaton's father and that he died by resolutely tending to his post when a levee broke; that Slaton is a hard worker and a successful farmer; that his 15-year-old daughter has been taking up with a 21-year-old; and that certain white folks in town don't think Slaton has been "acting right."

The house in which Hoterfield and Slaton share their kitchen conversation is cozy and warm, and the painted landscape around them looks like it was done by Bob Ross on deadline. You like the place and you like the people, and you especially like Slaton's friend, Fitzhugh Marvin (the ensemble's reliably wonderful William Barnes). But we all know about Chekhov's gun (if there's a gun on the wall in the first act, it's got to go off in the second), and the sudden, offhand reference to disapproving white folks sticks in your ear. These characters have busy lives to get on with — maybe Hoterfield and Slaton will marry, maybe Slaton's daughters will go to the city with Hoterfield and get educations, maybe Fitzhugh will find a nice girl and settle down — and you'd much rather pursue those possibilities than deal with the capricious violence of the local good ol' boys.

Even without them, there is enough drama for one play. Well before intermission, Dawson's weird delivery has resolved into a well-worn and soulful portrait, meltingly sympathetic without inhabiting any particular type or trope, and she delivers one of the most staggering lines of any play I've seen: "You knew me when I wasn't patched half back together like I am now," she says to Slaton. "Was I pretty? Was I smart? I was, wasn't I?"

You've led a hard life if you can say that and mean it, and she's not alone. Slaton and Marvin are carrying their own pain, which gets obscured by the occasional jubilant fish-fry. Slaton doesn't explode until long after considerations of love, life, farming, and Fitzhugh's beloved new motorcar have ceased being relevant; Chauncey de Leon Gilbert, who plays him, inspires both sadness and fear.

Some reviewers have complained that Levee James doesn't sufficiently build its dramatic tension, and that the conflict at its core comes as too much of a surprise to make for good theater. They've got it exactly wrong. As a portrait of people living under a continual menace, whose fates are not necessarily their own to make, Slaton, Hoterfield, and Marvin can't do anything but live normally until they are forced to do otherwise. As a result of the marked lack of suspense in the acts leading up to Levee James' sad denouement, we would much rather watch these people live than watch their lives torn apart, and that is the best thing you can say about this play or almost any other piece of theater. Rather than welcome violence as a necessary dramatic device, it makes us deplore it.

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Brandon K. Thorp