Review: ‘Leaving Eden’ is an ambitious play that engages the audience

The ensemble of “Leaving Eden” with Tangela Large as Selah, center.Ken A. Huth/HuthPhoto

The show

“Leaving Eden” by Mike Wiley, with music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett; presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company.

Related: Our country’s history is complicated. This playwright explores the gray areas in 2 theatrical premieres.

The fictional N.C. town of Marah has seen two periods of “cleansing”: against African-Americans in the 1930s and in the present against Latin Americans. Its Eden plantation’s history of enslavement echoes in the working conditions of the textile mill it became in the 20th century and now a pork processing plant in the 21st. The epic stories of families, torn apart by hatred, greed and privilege in both centuries, are mirrored and intertwined.

Here’s what to expect:

Impressive acting

Director Vivienne Benesch expertly guides 18 equally talented cast members playing 31 named parts. Familiar favorites include Kathryn Hunter-Williams as matriarch and caregiver; Jeffrey Blair Cornell as two despicable bigots; and Ray Dooley as sympathetic doctor and laid-back junk seller.

Newcomers make their marks: Alex Givens, as rebellious youths in both periods; Sarah Elizabeth Keyes, as two young women changed by the men they fall for; Carlos Alcala, as a young man hoping his music can lead to a new life; and Tristan Parks, as a black man accused of impregnating a white woman.

Special mention goes to Tangela Large, whose slave spirit’s narration and vocals bind the show together.

Top-notch production values

Jan Chambers’ sprawling, multilevel set includes a highway, a billboard, suspended metal walkways and platforms encrusted with junkyard items. McKay Coble’s costumes can change periods instantly, aided by choreographer Tracy Bersley’s ability to weave characters together from different centuries.

ML Geiger’s lighting has enveloping warmth or blinding harshness as needed. Adam Bintz’s sound design adds gun shots, rushing waters and train car rumblings.

Challenging material

Wiley’s ambitious work is dense with historical detail, salted with dialogue ranging from mythic oration to contemporary lingo. The quick changes between periods and storylines can be confusing on first viewing (best to peruse the program’s character listings and dramaturg’s essay beforehand).

Dossett’s occasional songs add atmosphere, while her musical underpinning of key scenes sometimes competes with the actors’ lines.

The bottom line

A worthy, engaging effort that might require subsequent viewings to take in all it has to offer.

“Leaving Eden”

Where: Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 250 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. April 10-14, 17-21; 2 p.m. April 14-15, 22. Post show discussions are April 11 and 15.
Tickets: $15-$62
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org

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