Midway through Act 1, there's a charming scene in Samm-Art Williams' Conversations on a Dirt Road in which Joe Lee (Ron Himes), having inherited 20 acres of prize North Carolina property, is set to reunite with the curvaceous Edna Cooper (an effectively brazen Linda Kennedy). Years earlier, Edna dumped Joe Lee because he was poor, but now he is about to sell his bequest and cash in big. As this guileless farmer eagerly uncorks the cheap wine, one is reminded of a similarly expectant moment in The Great Gatsby when Jay Gatsby nervously (if more elaborately) prepares for his reunion with Daisy Buchanan. And indeed, when the sultry Edna arrives, elegantly wedged into an extravagant vanilla ensemble that makes her look like a Fitzgerald heroine gone wildly crass, the analogy is complete.
Rich in humor yet serious in aspiration, this scene is an example of Samm-Art Williams at his most artful. His most passionate and authentic writing has always been rooted in North Carolina soil. When Joe Lee states that a bushel of cucumbers weighs 60 pounds, we can assume that the author did not look the factoid up in an almanac.
"I love the land, the soft beautiful black sod crushing beneath my feet," proclaims the protagonist in Williams' most acclaimed play, Home, which is also set in North Carolina. In Home, which was nominated for a Tony Award in 1980, the threat to the land was the very distant Vietnam War. Two decades later, the antagonist is closer to home; now, the threat is blood kin.
Williams' new play, which is being given its world premiere by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, might best be defined as a variation on a theme. Here, it is Joe Lee's citified brother Ray (J. Samuel Davis) who loves the land. As the two affectionate brothers debate whether Joe Lee is "selling our past" or "buying our future," progress takes its share of hits. But to Williams' credit, both sides of the issue are fairly presented. And for a refreshing change, the land developer is anything but a villain. As deftly portrayed by John Pierson, he is an enigmatically stoic presence, as intriguing for what he does not say as for what he does.
But here's the problem. The plot centers around Joe Lee's decision to sell not only the family property but the decrepit general store that stands on the land. The play features three eccentric local coots who sit around the store's potbelly stove and spin stories. Though their tales are drawn directly from Williams' past -- and though one senses that they are the imperative for the play's very existence -- they are also the reason the action stalls and the evening lasts nearly three hours.
Add to this another problem: Because Williams has labeled his play a comedy, nothing is at stake here. We can safely predict the resolution before the story ever begins. (It's a rare comedy that ends unhappily.)
Williams' few plot contrivances and twists are not enough to sustain a play of this light weight and long duration.
As Act 2 dragged on toward 11 p.m., my mind wandered to another playwright named Williams: No, not Tennessee -- Emlyn. In 1948, when Mister Roberts was trying out and running long in Philadelphia, director/author Joshua Logan was too close to the material to know what to cut, so he entrusted his script to British playwright Emlyn Williams. In one night, Williams objectively trimmed 16 minutes -- without excising a single scene or plot point. Mister Roberts went on to become one of the treasures of the American theater.
Conversations on a Dirt Road needs an Emlyn Williams. An agreeable treasure of a play is smothering inside this obese script -- and my guess is that Samm-Art Williams lacks both the objectivity and the inclination to release it.