Julia Pace Mitchell displays outstanding range as the heroine of Yellowman, now running on the Studio stage of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. It may not be as much range as her late father, Curt Flood, showed in centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals for many years, but vocally her character moves from the South Carolina Gullah/Geechee dialect to the disciplined syllables of a coed at New York's Hunter College, with many stops in between. Mitchell plays Alma and Alma's mother. Carsey Walker, Jr. plays all the other roles.
Alma and Eugene, Walker's principal character, are inseparable playmates as children, and their relationship grows as they do. But she is from a ne'er-do-well, fatherless family, burning with anger over her father's rejection of her pleading mother. He has two live-in parents who work and are striving for middle-class status. Their ambitiousness shows even in his name, Eugene.
Interestingly, he sees no need to leave his South Carolina hometown. She, however, is intent on going away to school, on finding a career that will keep her an even greater distance from home.
Dael Orlandersmith's two-hander has one major flaw: All the adults spend their time wrapped around a whiskey bottle, and almost every scene ends with a boorish argument fueled by alcohol. They are a terrible trio of options, but infidelity, violence, or even drugs would have offered the play a change of pace. It's almost as if Orlandersmith needed the time spent in futile argument to stretch her rather short play.
As noted, Mitchell's acting is outstanding; her physical change when Alma departs for Manhattan is beautifully rendered. It gives her character an advantage over Eugene, who remains the same stolid person throughout. Walker is a fine actor, but playing Eugene doesn't allow for the same range.
Michael Philippi's rather plain set -- a planked floor -- provides the actors with sufficient space in the small theatre, and his lights emphasize without dominating. Clyde Ruffin, usually extremely ebullient when it comes to costume design, is forced to work from a smaller palette and does it nicely. Susan Gregg's direction is discreet, allowing both Mitchell and Walker -- and the drama itself -- to stay front and center.
Yellowman runs Jan. 18-Feb. 5 at the Emerson Studio Theatre of the Loretto-Hilton Center, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves, Mo. Tickets: (314) 968-4925. Website: www.repstl.org.