Stephen Fife has created an epic American play, covering a journalist's three-decade search to unravel a conspiracy that's left a possibly innocent black man incarcerated for the murder of a white couple. Fife's need to make sense of this twisted tale of the inequities of our country's justice system when it comes to race obviously drives this piece, which is based on the story of middleweight champion Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, jailed in the 1970s for a triple murder for which he was later exonerated.
Under L. Flint Esquerra's sturdy, steady directorial hand, Erik Passoja as reporter Sol Eisner leads a dynamic cast of 15 playing 35 characters who weave in and out of Sol's tortured memories. Even with actors exiting the stage as one person and returning with lightning speed as another, there isn't a weak link among the committed, unmistakably skillful performers in these multiple roles. Nate Geez is also calmly effective as Sol's biracial son Danny, as are Latarsha Rose as the reporter's doomed love Adele and Tom Badal as Sol's bigger-than-life uncle. But no matter who is on stage disturbing Sol's thoughts, the riveting marathon performance of Passoja provides the pulse here. He's almost uncanny in his ability not only to project Sol's frustration but to explore with subtle nuance the nagging vulnerability and uncertainty lurking below his studied professional bravado. Beyond that, Passoja mines a riskily quirky body language and humor that even better defines who this guy is and what makes him tick in a world he's in danger of abandoning at any moment.
The production is not perfect — something that can be blamed squarely on the enormity of the project. Fife's script is often exposition-heavy and in need of tightening, as is some of the air allowed to linger between lines that should be played more with rapid-fire Odets ballsiness than with intractable Miller indulgence. Esquerra's sound design is also leveled way too high and filled with unnecessary signals, while many light cues were clearly late, early, or nonexistent. Still, with its moody dreamlike grittiness and a wailing Miles Davis score sure to pull the audience in, what Fife and his crew have accomplished is haunting — and unmistakably commendable.
Presented by Stealfire Productions in association with and at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Oct. 17-Nov. 23. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. (323) 960-7788. www.plays411.com/savageworld.