Locals should be familiar with Portland Playhouse's church digs in Northeast, adapted to stage uniquely inventive works, but temporarily closed due to neighbor complaints about parking. I'm glad to note they will be back there by January, but in the meantime they are kicking off their season in the World Trade Center Theater, a challenging location for cast, crew and audience to adjust to. August Wilson's Gem of The Ocean, the first in his 10-part, 20th-century-spanning chronicle the Pittsburg Cycle, is a smart choice given previous wins with productions of Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Radio Golf.
The singular setting, conveyed in elongated design elements, is 1839 Wylie Avenue, a house of sanctuary for African Americans in 1904. The Civil War then retained in living memory a bitter sting and national ambivalence. In this climate we see ex-slaves figuring out individually the meaning of fought-for freedom, bound to that heritage, yet freshly challenged by economic inequality.
The play's slight bent of magical realism, akin to Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits or Toni Morrison's Beloved, is made absolutely stunning and convincing, in particular by the 285-year-old matriarch and "soul cleanser" Aunt Ester (Brenda E. Phillips), who is sought out by young Citizen Barlow (Vin Shambry) to have a crime absolved from his conscience. The other characters shine through moments of rapture and gravity, fleshed out by solid and nuanced performances that illustrate the themes of Wilson's work.