Sidney Horton has done it again. Back in 1999, he directed the area premiere of Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West up in the Attic Theatre of the old African-American Cultural Center on Seventh Street. Now he's piloting the Davidson Community Players' production at their equally cozy Armour Street Theatre - with an equally uneven cast. Results have been satisfying on both occasions, proving once again that the script is well worth doing and that Horton can get optimum performances from the people he's working with.
Elizabeth Wedding's set design suggests that the Dove household in Nicodemus, Kansas, is decidedly more substantial and conventional than the hovel I remember in the Attic. Perhaps we are all looking differently at 1898 from the vantage point of 2014, but in their wee corner of the Attic, it seemed to me that the Dove sisters and their live-in matriarchal neighbor Miss Leah were struggling to hang on and survive. Spread across the Armour space, in a house that sports a guest bedroom onstage and other sleeping quarters offstage, the Doves now seem to be bent on hanging onto what they already have.
In Nicodemus, a very real town founded in 1878 as a magnet for recruiting former slaves and other African Americans, holding on to what you have meant both real estate and identity. It is a testament to the settlers' success that land speculators are knocking on their doors, yet it is also a reminder of their vulnerability - and the need for solidarity. Sophie, the gun-toting adopted sister of the Doves, understands this well enough, ready to defend the homestead and her more delicate siblings with all her tomboy ferocity.
Fannie, the family's aspiring writer, has a deep attachment to the land, bolstered by the suspicion that Wil Parrish, a neighboring farmer, will summon up the courage to ask for her hand. Minnie, however, is returning home for the first time since leaving home to marry Frank Charles, a successful English poet. Frank brings a load of unpleasant baggage with him: he's a mulatto who is contemptuous of the black race, he has a wicked gambling habit, he's abusive to his wife, and he finds the very idea of Nicodemus grotesque.
All of Frank's frailties bring strong elements of suspense and melodrama to the table. Cleage mixes in an equal measure of comedy, so there's never a family dispute that cannot be resolved with a slice of Miss Leah's special apple pie.
With Karen Abercrombie as Miss Leah giving the standout performance, the calm and comical aspects of Flyin' West emerge more beautifully at Armour Street Theatre than they did in the Attic. There was an equally arresting performance in the 1999 version, but that was by the African-American center's program director April Jones as Sophie, whose cattle drover costume chimed well with the primitive Rawhide flavor of the set. Costume designer Lory Butters has a similar concept for Sophie, but Andrea Michele isn't nearly as fluent or charismatic in the role. It's still a hoot when she ventures into women's wear.
Veda Covington is alternately air-headed and pathetic as the flighty and bullied Minnie, and there's a seething, understated steeliness to Brandon Samples' take on Frank, so melodrama and comedy remain effectively counterpoised. Stephanie McInnes and Michael Connor get the least meaty parts of the script. They're the future of Nicodemus, they're clearly meant for each other, and they're no more saccharine than the protagonists of Oklahoma!