Marcus Gardley's The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry unfurls with the intense sweep of a Shakespearean tragedy but is steeped in the distinct history of the United States. The current production at Pillsbury House Theatre — one of several rolling world premieres for the work — augments the strengths of Gardley's script with a number of terrific performances and measured and probing direction from Marion McClinton.
Gardley uses Wewoka, Oklahoma, as his starting point. The town was settled and incorporated by a group of Black Seminoles — a mix of African and Native Americans — in the mid-19th century. Here, the community is re-imagined as Freetown and centers on the conflict between two families: those of Trowbridge (Jake Waid) and Number Two (Ansa Akyea). And like another pair of famous star-crossed lovers, the tragedy first falls on the children.
Trowbridge and Number Two had a complex relationship in the years before Freetown was settled, and it has putrefied in the years before the show opens in 1850. Befitting his name, Number Two has an inferiority complex, believing that he, not Trowbridge, should have been the sheriff of the town.
THE ROAD WEEPS, THE WELL RUNS DRY Pillsbury House Theatre 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis; Through October 27; 612-825-0459
When he discovers the love affair between his daughter Sweet Tea and Trowbridge's son Goodbird, Number Two kills Goodbird and tosses his body down the town's well. His action is discovered once the well goes dry, and the murder lays a long-term curse over the town. More than that, surviving lover Sweet Tea is pregnant, and the wife of Trowbridge — Half George — demands the child in exchange for the loss of her son.
That's just the first act. Act Two takes place 16 years later, when the long-term consequences of those actions come home to roost, and outside forces — from a rival tribe to the United States government — threaten the community as well.
Though the play is definitely an ensemble piece, Akyea's Number Two towers above the others. He is not only the engineer of most of the plot, but his hubris and anger remind the viewer of great theatrical tyrants, from Creon to Macbeth to Othello.
The talented Akyea dives deep into the character, crafting a fully realized villain who, like the best bad guys, thinks he is the hero of the story.
His main rival is Half George, brought to life by Keli Garrett. Fueled by a fire of revenge and retribution, Half George is as much a force of nature as Number Two. Garrett is up to the challenge laid down by Akyea's performance, equaling his intensity and depth at every turn.
The rest of the 11-performer cast work together to form a compelling ensemble. Newcomer Jake Waid, who performed in an earlier production of the show in his native Alaska, gives a measured performance as Trowbridge. Santino Craven plays three generations of the same family, taking on the role of Young Trowbridge, his son Goodbird, and grandson Wonderful.
Regina Marie Williams plays holy roller M. Gene, who leads a subplot about the intersection and rivalry between the community's Seminole spiritual roots and the more recent introduction of Christianity. The cultural interplay gets personified between M. Gene and Horse Power (the always excellent James Craven) and provides a rich texture to the proceedings.
As its large cast indicates, the whole show is bursting at the seams of Pillsbury House's tiny theater. McClinton balances it all, giving the actors room to perform without ever losing sight of the story.
Gardley crafts an epic tale here, loaded with complex characters, sporting a spiritual context, and employing a rich dialect. It threatens to spin out of control in the final minutes, but an ambitious writer is more compelling than one who plays it safe.