Three plays, 70 years, ten characters, three-and-a-half hours; if you’re concerned about the length of The Refuge Plays – an Off-Broadway debut production of Roundabout Theatre Company, in conjunction with New York Theatre Workshop, playing a limited engagement at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre – don’t be. It’s a beautifully written, brilliantly acted, and masterfully directed epic saga following four generations of one Black family in the woods of southern Illinois that kept me thoroughly engrossed, entertained, and affected; I could have stayed for another three-and-a-half hours.
Written by Nathan Alan Davis, the story, told in reverse chronological order, combines poetic passages of direct-address commentary with enacted scenes in everyday language (expert voice coaching by Kate Wilson) of familial developments and interactions, and loving apparitions of their deceased, who remain in their hearts and minds forever. Patricia McGregor directs with the perfect combination of humor and sensitivity, and the stellar cast of ten delivers it all with total empathy and irresistible humanity.
Part one is set in the present, inside the close quarters of the family’s isolated cabin, built by the feisty matriarch Early and inhabited with her daughter Gail, granddaughter Joy, and great-grandson Ha-Ha. It’s nighttime, and they’re visited by the ghost of Walking Man – Early’s son and Gail’s husband, who kisses his loved ones in their sleep and delivers the prophetic message that Gail will die within the next 24 hours.
Thus launches the story of their reactions, relationships, and the family history of who they are and how they got there, with the second part taking us back to the 1970s, with the middle-aged Early, her husband Crazy Eddie, their boy Walking Man, and their visitors, both living and spectral, in the yard just outside the cabin door. The part-three finale, set in the 1950s, tells of the budding romance of the couple’s younger selves, the source of Early’s hardened and combative nature, and her intent to build the cabin on the land where Eddie finds her, after she’s been missing. Through it all, we come to care about these very human characters, and to understand the importance of love, family, and home as their place of refuge, away from the harsh realities of the outside world.
Appearing in all three parts, at three different stages of her life, metaphorically represented by three different seasons, is the outstanding Nicole Ari Parker as Early, flawlessly capturing the distinctive ages, physical demeanors, and voice of the compelling character, enhanced by defining hair and wigs by Earon Nealey and make-up by J. Jared Janas, as her backstory is slowly revealed and her toughness explained as the coping mechanism she uses to help her survive the challenges she’s faced. Also featured throughout the plays is Daniel J. Watts as Crazy Eddie, a permanently injured war veteran, determined to provide the love and support she needs and then gives back to him, in another excellent performance that embodies his intrepid spirit and physical decline.
They are joined by the across-the-board believable and engaging performances of Jon Michael Hill as the wandering high-spirited Walking Man; Jessica Frances Dukes as his widow Gail, who has taken on the demanding role of the head of household and ultimately comes to terms with her laughably antagonistic mother-in-law and the imminent death that will happily reunite her with her husband on the other side, where, he tells her, “Peace is real;” Ngozi Anyanwu as their daughter Joy, who devotedly cares for her mother and grandmother and tries to keep the peace between them, while raising her own son Ha-Ha in the family cabin; and JJ Wynder-Wilkins as Ha-Ha, an intelligent, shy, and endearing seventeen-year-old, who has decided to go vegan (a contrast with the brutal slaughtering of animals by Walking Man and Early) and is respectful of Symphony, the quirky outgoing friend and seemingly destined love interest he meets at a coffee shop and brings home, played with adorable neo-hippie-style affection and positivity by Mallori Taylor Johnson – both indicating the changes of attitude in the current generation.
Rounding out the terrific cast is Lance Coadie Williams as Crazy Eddie’s younger brother Dax, determined to move to Paris, where he can “Be,” as, he notes, James Baldwin did before him, and Jerome Preston Bates and Lizan Mitchell as the smiling ghosts of Early’s parents Reginald and Clydette, the guardian angels who guide her.
An evocative artistic design enhances the skillful characterizations and surreal aspects of the show, with defining costumes by Emilio Sosa, movement by Paloma McGregor, fight direction by Rick Sordelet/Sordelet Inc., original music and sound by Marc Anthony Thompson, and vocal soundscapes by composer Imani Uzuri. And sets by Arnulfo Maldonado display the stages of the family’s homestead in the woods, with lighting by Stacey Derosier that indicates the times and seasons, and the otherworldly presence.
I can only hope that the gripping, funny, and touching multi-generational family saga of The Refuge Plays will continue into the future, so we can find out what becomes of Early, Joy, Ha-Ha, Symphony, and Dax. In the meantime, don’t miss this first-rate three-and-a-half hour production that flew by and left me wanting more.
Running Time: Approximately three hours and 25 minutes, including two intermissions.
The Refuge Plays plays through Sunday, November 12, 2023, at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $65-177, including fees), go online.