The story is almost too good to be true. A teenage preacher in the Mississippi of the Great Depression 1930s falls to women, booze and the blues. There is sharecropping. Murder. Juke joints. The classic battle of God vs. Satan. A confluence of guitar-picking rogues, including the iconic Delta bluesman who inexplicably disappears for decades. Alcoholism, another murder. And then rediscovery, a trio of blues enthusiasts finding the old man sitting on his front porch in Rochester’s Corn Hill. Recognition at last, and redemption.
Indeed, the real story of Son House is so good, so true, that it presented a dilemma for the playwright: As a storyteller, how does Keith Glover work with so much rich material, yet overcome its too-familiar elements?
Start with the Jimmy Stewart film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which heavenly beings sit in judgment of a man. But darken the story with measures of Doctor Faustus and soulful Wagnerian archangels.
“Revival: The Resurrection of Son House,” commissioned by Geva Theatre Center, is on its world-premiere run here through June 2. Geva’s production is up to its usual high, inventive standards. A rough-hewn set that evolves to fit the movements of the actors. A sporty roadster, tractor and train engine rendered as expressionist sculptures, whimsical interpretations of the real things. Dances created by Garth Fagan Dance’s Norwood Pennewell. Artfully staged scenes by Glover, who also directs. And, most obviously, the tortured blues of Son House.
The last, a tougher task than you might think. As Geva Artistic Director Mark Cuddy points out, you can get the rights to “John the Revelator,” “Death Letter” and “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” but Son House never bothered to write down the words or music. Pulling this together and creating supporting compositions appropriate to the times – the play spans the period between 1917 and 1968 – is Musical Director Billy Thompson, whose diverse résumé ranges far from his Virginia home. Four musicians hidden beneath the stage bring this to life, including Thompson and Rochester’s Fred Vine; between them, they’re playing 12 different guitars.
Geva commissioned Glover five years ago to write “Revival.” A Pulitzer-nominated playwright, actor and musician, Glover has mined this territory before with “Thunder Knocking on the Door” and his latest work, “Jazzland.” So he’s the right guy, now living in California, but with the blues in his bones after growing up in Alabama. If “Revival” is destined for off-Broadway, or even Broadway, it’s a star vehicle for whoever lands the lead role of Son House. Here it’s played brilliantly by Cleavant Derricks, whose biography bulges at the seams with theater, television and film credits. And Derricks – who even plays the 15-year-old House – is man enough for House’s thunderous vocal style.
This new “Revival” is substantially different than the one presented as a reading four years ago at Geva. Thankfully, it is shorter; that one went for about four hours. According to Cuddy, this is about “version 16,” although it was undergoing changes right up through Friday’s performance. Yet it still clocks in at about 2½ hours.
The arc of House’s character development seems a bit thin. Early in the first half of the show, House is already lamenting how he’s caught in the battle of God vs. Satan. By the second half of “Revival,” there’s nowhere else to go. Perhaps this is merely the truth of the man. “This conflict stayed with him throughout his entire life,” Cuddy says, “and this is the core of the play.” Still, some artistic license might be called for: A little less wailing about being caught between these two forces, and a little more wailing of Son House blues, would serve the story well.
And Glover has taken this story far afield from where August Wilson might have gone with it, setting aside any linear telling in favor of a tale populated by a jury of archangels who actually become a part of House’s life. The archangels are even aware that this life is a play; at one point, two archangels argue over who will play the lead female role. Four “Roustabouts” not only help with set changes, but their steel-gray, inhuman faces – they look like robots as rendered by Edward Hopper – add a sense of menace. How you feel about the injection of these mythological and surreal elements into a story of God-fearing, Southern-Gothic characters will color your appreciation for the show.
Interestingly, as Rochester currently has a cast of color presenting us with the white Founding Fathers in “Hamilton,” Glover goes there as well. The three white, male musicologists who discovered House living here are played by two black men and a black woman
The archangels frequently break the fourth wall by addressing the audience, keeping it appraised of House’s age in that particular scene. Glover has an interest in characters crossing over: In “Jazzland,” a dead father talks with his comatose son. But in this latest version of “Revival,” Glover has also sharpened the real-life social and historical criticism, using the archangels to point out the country’s dark history taking place at that moment, lynchings and civil-rights outrages.
Time is compressed, and even rolls backwards. The first murder committed by House, as a young man, earns just a passing reference to him having spent time in prison. The second murder, committed by an older House being shaken down for money by a younger man, is played out in full detail. Glover evidently felt that one murder was enough. Too many dead men might stand in the way of Son House’s evocative story, and the tortured music it produced.
Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.