Marti Gobel (left) and Rachel Cognata in "Mud Row." Karli Cadell Photography
As richly drawn as the characters are in Dominique Morisseau’s “Mud Row,” there’s one “character” not listed in the dramatis personae: an abandoned (though it turns out not really) house in a discarded neighborhood in West Chester, Pa. It’s there, in the midst of a sofa draped in plastic and lamps rarely lit for want of electricity, that past and present converge and two generations of Black women strive for self-truth and identity.
"Mud Row,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, also finds its characters in various stages of reconciliation, either with the lots given them, with those who came before them, or with each other.
Cygnet’s is a riveting and superbly acted production of Morisseau’s play, which premiered three years ago at People’s Light in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Here is a vividly told, multi-layered story in which, thanks in part to the excellent performances in Old Town, we care about each of its six characters.
Elsie (Andrea Agosto) and Frances (Joy Yvonne Jones) are sisters with very different priorities living in the turbulent ‘60s. Elsie wishes to ascend socially, in part by marrying into the so-called “Talented Tenth.” The militant Frances, meanwhile, is in the thick of the civil rights movement. Her dreams are not material ones.
This recurring narrative alternates with the present-day circumstances at the West Chester house, which belonged to Grandma Elsie: Her accomplished grown granddaughter Regine (Marti Gobel) has discovered she has inherited the place. Disturbed by her memories of it and her life there, she wants no part of it and tells her loving husband Davin (Rondrell McCormick) so. They will sell it and, to Regine’s way of thinking, get what they can for it.
There’s a complication: Regine and Davin realize someone has been living in the house.
The audience learns before they do that Regine’s estranged troubled younger sister Toshi (Rachel Cognata) and her boyfriend Tyriek (Leo Ebanks) have been squatting at the house for three months. A recovering drug addict, the fiercely determined Toshi isn’t about to give up the house. She equates their living in it with the promise of a new, better life.
Much more than mere family drama plays out as “Mud Row” tensely moves toward resolution, from Frances’ terrifying flashback confrontations while protesting to a shocking moment of impulsive violence in the house at the end of Act One.
The most crucial and affecting scenes are those between sisters: between Elsie and Frances as their chosen paths diverge more and more, and between Regine and Toshi, whose relationship seems irrevocably broken by betrayals and resentments.
Besides Joy Yvonne Jones, who continues to demonstrate why she is one of the most talented young actors in town, Gobel and Cognata both alone and together illuminate the pain and doubts that each sister endures. Regine and Toshi find rare common ground in their memories of Grandma Elsie, aching as those are.
If at times “Mud Row” gets speechy, it’s at least acknowledged once when Toshi asks to be excused for employing a metaphor, and the reality is that some of the play’s most revealing moments emanate from just the fire in Frances’ eyes or in Toshi’s inward, restless reckoning with her past.
Brian Redfern’s scenic design, lighting by Caroline Andrew and sound design by Melanie Chen Cole all contribute to an immersive, time-traveling visit to a house where fulfillment of dreams comes uneasily … if at all.
“Mud Row” runs through June 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat