Charles Smith’s “The Gospel According to James,” dramatizes a real-life 1930 Indiana lynching, examining the wily nature of truth and who defines it.
Unfortunately, the show’s stagnant staging, occasionally clunky dialogue and long run-time don’t always hold the audience’s attention.
James (Andre De Shields) returns to Marion, Ind., with a double agenda: to receive a Governor’s pardon for being unjustly imprisoned and to attend the funeral of Hoot (Christopher Jon Martin), the man who prevented James’ murder years earlier. He attempts to persuade Hoot’s daughter Marie (Linda Kimbrough) to participate in a documentary about that lynching, which killed two of their friends. She initially refuses, claiming James’ story to be an outright lie and demands the right to tell her version.
The exposition-heavy first act is almost a monologue; it’s chock full of telling without showing. The story picks up when the events are dramatized and we see how radically a tale can change depending on whose viewpoint dominates.
Veterans De Shields and Kimbrough offer up solid performances, but director Chuck Smith’s staging requires them to spend much of their time staring at other characters, looking wistful. Kelsey Brennan and Tyler Jacob Robinson effectively portray the desperation that forces young people to do just about anything to leave their moribund small town life. Wardell Julius Clark and Anthony Peeples play a complicated combination of comedy and threat; Martin brings a palpable menace to his role, enough to explain why people alter the truth to avoid his wrath. Linda Buchanan’s austere, silvery set captures the melancholy that comes with living a life based on lies.
“The Gospel According to James” plays at the Victory Gardens Theater through June 12; for tickets, call the box office at 773-871-3000, visit victorygardens.org.