Last December the talented director Pat Diamond helmed an unusual, video-centric production of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Now Mr. Diamond, an opera specialist, has brought a brash, colorful, operatic flair to his staging of A. Rey Pamatmat's new play Thunder Above, Deeps Below for Second Generation. Like Dido this is a story about abandonment, but it's no tragedy – Thunder Above is about redemption and rebirth as well as loss. It concerns three homeless teens in Chicago, who've all been left, one way or another, and their efforts to find a better way of life without sinking to violent crime or excessively dangerous behavior.
It's quite a sight, this play, with lavish costumes, grandiloquent sound design, and a spectacular set by Sandra Goldmark. It also boasts some very fine performances, led by Maureen Sebastian, who was so good as the swashbuckling hero of Soul Samurai back in February. This lady deserves a boost to Broadway.
The material here, however, is somewhat lacking, for two main reasons. First, the script veers from overly self-conscious poetics to cliched and unrealistic dialogue. After hearing Theresa's (Ms. Sebastian) story of being forced to abandon her baby, would a teenage Latino youth ask, "Is that why you're made of stone?" Would a sixteen-year-old homeless Filipino transsexual cry, "I won't be another trannie who dies helping his friend pull off some harebrained scheme!"? It's a testament to the skill of the actors who portray these roles (Rey Lucas and Jon Norman Schneider, respectively) that we are not thoroughly turned off by such dialogue. Rather, we grow to like and appreciate these characters, rooting for them to get to their Promised Land of San Francisco, just as we root for the production, which has many good elements, to reach the transcendent heights suggested by Ms. Goldmark's two-level, industrial-mythic set.
It never does, partly because it tries too hard to escape the base world of humanity. The play's second flaw is the way Mr. Pamatmat weaves a perplexing and unnecessary element of magic through the plot. The scenery may be operatic, but the characters aren't mythic heroes; in spite of their sometimes unrealistic dialogue, the cast makes them seem real to us. That's why we like them. Applying magic to point their way and solve their problems seems like cheating. The magic and mysticism center around the coffee shop manager/mother figure of Marisol (Phyllis Johnson, who does what she can with an awkward role). She sprinkles fairy dust in the kids' coffee. She dons an extravagant hooded robe to, Charon-like, row Theresa's lost boyfriend (a wild-eyed Darian Dauchan) across a mythic version of Lake Michigan to find her. (I'm not giving anything away; you spot right away that the hooded supernatural figure is Marisol in another guise.)
Finally, when Hector, feeling once more abandoned, cracks and threatens violence, it's Theresa who defuses the situation with her own very human grace; but it's Marisol who then lies him down and mumbo-jumbos him through some sort of mystical rebirth.
By the end, despite some amusing and touching scenes that brightened up the second act, I had begun to feel not just disengaged from the story, but uncomfortable with the character of Marisol. I had thought that in the era of President Barack Obama we might have grown past a reliance on that kind of "Magical Negro" character. The other main adult character, a rich man who wants to be Hector's "sugar daddy" while maintaining the outward life of a straight family man, seems by contrast satisfyingly real, in spite of a somewhat stiff performance by Rafael Jordan.
In short, this is an ambitious and very well done production that manifests several pleasures, but is hobbled by the flaws at its foundation.
Thunder Above, Deeps Below runs through Sept. 26 at the TBG Theatre, 312 W. 26 St., New York.
Photo: Maureen Sebastian as Theresa. Photo by Cory Weaver.