Frequently, stage plays at the Alliance Theatre feel like the next best thing to being there. A powerful sense of place nearly always comes across, partly due to the lavish scale and minute detail of the reliably impressive sets. Whether the play takes place in The Color Purple's small-town Georgia or one of August Wilson's low-income Pittsburgh row houses, you often feel as though the characters' homes have physically dropped down upon the Atlanta stage.
One of the surprises of The Women of Brewster Place, Tim Acito's adaptation of Gloria Naylor's famous 1982 novel, is that Brewster Place does not literally appear in the world-premiere musical. Anne Patterson's set largely leaves us to imagine the fictional housing project in the large, unnamed American city of the 1970s. Blank partitions represent rooms and exterior walls, at times featuring windows from which the local gossips can spy on their neighbors. The most commanding feature of the set – virtually its only feature whatsoever – is a massive traffic wall at the back, which serves as an inescapable symbol of poverty and imprisonment.
The Alliance Theatre's production of The Women of Brewster Place would rather leave the physical details in the audience's mind's eye and define the building through the spirit and character of the women who live there. Directed by Molly Smith, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage (which co-produces the show), the musical features some rousing songs and a feisty female cast, but doesn't always convey the living, breathing soul of the community.
An expression of solidarity opens the play, as the curtain rises on the 10 cast members joining together for "Gonna Sing Loud." The "holla and shout" pride of the song suffers a bit from the decision to have the ensemble stand rooted in place, like figures in a fashion show. The follow-up, "How Do We Get Through to You?" offers a powerful contrast. The play's unofficial matriarch, Mattie (Tina Fabrique, at once humble and supremely dignified), sings in her room about her problems with her children. The tone changes from an expression of confidence and sisterhood to one of loneliness and confinement. Acito, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, shows a tendency to freight his words with too much exposition: "Lord, it's been over five years since my son Basil disappeared."
Most of Mattie's friends are also alone or alienated. Her daughter Lucielia (Shelley Thomas) raises a daughter in the absence of the child's constantly working father. Cora Lee (Tijuana T. Ricks) reluctantly rides herd over a brood of kids whom she freely calls "Hey, dumbass!" Even the "life-force" character, Mattie's hedonistic old friend Etta Mae (crowd-pleasing Marva Hicks), seemingly can't keep a man for more than one night.
The musical emphasizes the episodic quality of Naylor's 1982 novel, and in the play's first act, the scenes and numbers seem to stand alone rather than build on each other. Brewster Place seizes your attention with "Kiswana Browne" (Monique L. Midgette), a young idealist who announces herself as "the first black superhero" (with appropriate "blaxploitation" touches in the arrangements), but then the character goes away.
Songs that contain their own stories prove more compelling. Kiswana's mother (Terry Burrell) stirringly sings about a brave ancestor in "Then Know This," while Etta Mae describes the flirtatious excitement and inevitable letdown in "Man of God," about a one-night stand with a preacher.
Despite the clarity and expressiveness of the singers across the board, the sparseness of the set creates kind of a void. Modestly touching or amusing incidents, such as Lucielia talking to her lover in a three-minute phone conversation, or Kiswana trying to bond with Cora Lee despite the raucous rug rats, lose their energy in the cavernous emptiness.
The second act improves by focusing more closely on a lesbian couple, Lorraine (Harriet D. Roy) and Tee (Suzzanne Douglas), and the sensation their presence causes in the housing project. The play benefits enormously by having a relationship and conflicts between two characters in the same room, and Roy and Douglas prove to be sensitive performers who play beautifully off each other. The action finds pathos but also humor in some of the other women's initial homophobia. Not unlike The Color Purple's scene-stealing busybodies, the three gossips initially chatter "That Girl Is Gonna Be Trouble," then Tee snaps back with "Getting Freaky with Me," sarcastically asking if they want to see her "freaky" groceries or paper towels.
The production finds its greatest power in its tragic moments. Near the end of Act 2, Mattie emerges with a brush to try and clean a bloodstain off the traffic wall, and as the other women join in for "Because My Soul Is Dry," the a cappella voices and the rasp of the brushes create the sound of a timeless lament, the despair tempered by angry resolve.
In such scenes, The Women of Brewster Place seems to leap across time and distance, transcending the production's flaws. The cast comes across as not just the women of Brewster Place, but as mothers, daughters and sisters who belong anywhere, shouldering the burdens of the world.