Set in the mountains of West Virginia, Kevin Arkadie’s drama “Up the Mountain” at Theatre Geo is a richly complex portrayal of child abuse, the legacy of racism and the healing power of family.
A memory play, “Mountain” shifts in time from the past to the present. Polly (Joan Pringle), Lucinda (Veronica Reddforrest) and Margaret (Hattie Winston), African American women raised poor in a traditionally racist region, are now career women who have scattered across the country. When the sisters revisit their childhood home, they are haunted by memories of their abusive father, John (Willie C. Carpenter), and their loving but downtrodden mother, Jolene (Iona Morris), whose damaging influence has echoed long into their adulthood.
Combative and manipulative Margaret wants to unload the dilapidated family homestead for quick cash, despite the fact that she signed over her share of the house years ago to the emotionally vulnerable Polly, who is intent upon giving the house to her coddled and abusive son. Successful and glamorous Lucinda takes over her old role as mediator in her sisters’ longtime war--until her own mental crisis becomes evident.
Although he is also a produced playwright, Arkadie works regularly on television and has been involved in a variety of series from “I’ll Fly Away” to “Chicago Hope.” Yet he avoids any hint of television predictability, and his dialogue is blessedly free of contemporary psychobabble.
Rendered throughout with subtlety and compassion, Arkadie’s characters, although damaged, are all well-meaning--even the volatile John, a downtrodden miner whose very presence inspires dread among his wife and daughters. While deploring his violence, Arkadie also examines the etiology of John’s abusiveness, which is very much a product of his place and time. John is all too aware that, in this back-country, dread is a necessary survival skill, and one ill-advised comment could prove lethal for a black man. A bitterly dutiful teacher, John beats his womenfolk as much to protect them as to exercise power.
Carpenter is fully dimensional and heart-wrenching as John, as is Morris as the long-suffering Jolene, who endures because that is her only option. (However, Morris’ thick regional accent is sometimes unintelligible.) Pringle, Reddforrest and Winston, who also play the sisters as children, are achingly authentic throughout.
Michael Haney’s impeccable direction does full justice to Arkadie’s work, as do Doc Ballard’s lighting, Arline Burks Gant’s costumes, Kevin Goold’s sound design, Stephen James Taylor’s original music, and the superlative set by Everett Chase, Victoria Profitt and Thomas A. Brown.
Along with their lingering trauma, these sisters also inherited an indissoluble familial bond--ironically, their best hope of escaping the past and forgiving their loving but tragically imperfect parents.
“Up the Mountain,” Theatre Geo, 1229 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 22. $20. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.