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Friday, May 14, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Joe Turner's Come And Gone': Only Thing Wrong Is The Pacing

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- Theater review

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone" by August Wilson. Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Theatre, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. N.E. Tuesdays-Sundays through May 23. 206-543-4635. -------------------------------

August Wilson's wonderful 1988 play "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (currently at the University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Theatre) is set in a respectable boarding house in a black section of Philadelphia. The year is 1911; memories of slavery, and the great migrations from Southern plantation to Northern city, are still fresh.

There are 11 characters, and a diagram of the subplots linking them would look like a map of the Mississippi Delta. But the central channel in Wilson's story is the arrival of the unstable stranger Loomis (Daniel Coles), who is ranging across the country with younger daughter Zonia (Vanetta Epps) in tow, in a desperate and quixotic search for his lost wife.

Seth (Matt Orduna) owns the boarding house; with his wife Bertha (Sheila Williams) he has built a new world of ordinary domestic decency and honest trade that pre-figures the real black-white equality that's still far in the future. Thus Seth trades on equal terms with the white peddler Rutherford Selig (Andrew McMasters).

But Loomis is a haunting reminder of roots: We gradually learn that he was torn from his wife a decade ago and indentured to the notorious Joe Turner of the title - the brother of the then-Tennessee governor. Loomis is the incarnation of slavery's deepest scars; his first name isn't Herald for nothing.

One of the play's key moments comes when Seth is winning a game of dominoes against Bynum Walker (Ron Simons - a key performance in a strong cast). Bynum is another hint of tradition: a mystical, motor-mouthed healer, he shares with Loomis a fascination with blood, sacrifice and visions. After breaking off the game to engage Loomis in a contest of philosophical/spiritual expressiveness, Bynum sums it all up with what he hopes is a profound sentiment: "Everybody looking for something."

But the pragmatic Seth will have none of this mumbo-jumbo. "I lookin' for you to come here and play these dominoes," he says. Forget the past; forget philosophical consolations; get on with everyday life.

Other key characters include Jeremy (Neil Dawson), a young guitarist with a wandering eye and two of the women who catch his attention: practical, desperate Mattie (Donna Bergman), and haughty, scheming Molly Cunningham (Dawn Robertson).

Margaret Landry-Navarro's simple set, aided by Mark Baratta's lighting design, gives us both sides of home for the newly urbanized African American: the cramped but friendly kitchen/parlor, and the grim but job-filled cityscape beyond.

Director Valerie Curtis-Newton has a great cast and a stunning script to work with. If anything is wrong with her orchestration, it's the pace, which is too slow - suggesting an understandable but excessive reverence for Wilson's rich language. Wilson's plays are static to an almost Chekhovian degree, and they need to be moved along with some snap.

But this could be an artifact of opening night. If the ensemble could cut 10 minutes off the running time, this already very strong production will really - as Bynum would say - find its song.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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