A terrific premise is the surest head start for any play — though, just as frequently noted, the follow-through must live up to the idea.
The Ensemble Theatre’s thoroughly winning, season-opening production of Pearl Cleage’s “The Nacirema Society” succeeds on both points.
It’s always intriguing to discover a social enclave seldom depicted. Cleage portrays the world of African-American debutantes in the South, represented by one pillar-of-society family in Montgomery, Ala., whose Nacirema Society is celebrating its 100th anniversary amid the looming social change of 1964. Cleage realizes her theme’s rich potential through clever plotting, smart dialogue and beautifully delineated characters.
Having chosen this lovely play (premiered in 2010 as a co-production of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival), director Eileen Morris and her uniformly marvelous cast have mined all its considerable warmth, humor and subtle insight.
The play centers on haughty Grace Dubose Dunbar, ultimate arbiter of her social set, and her polite yet independent-minded granddaughter Gracie, who is being prepared for her debut as queen of the 100th anniversary cotillion. Grace upholds tradition and decorum and feels little connection to society’s less fortunate. Gracie has made her school project NOT a history of the Nacirema Society (as Gram requested), but an oral history of the Montgomery bus boycott a decade earlier. That’s the first clue to the conflict in store.
Grace and her friend Catherine are determined that Gracie will marry Catherine’s grandson, Bobby, the ideal “catch” of their set. But Gracie and Bobby don’t love each other. Bobby has fallen in love with someone else — and his choice is likely to displease both grandmothers.
Alpha, daughter of the Dunbar family’s late housekeeper, intrudes on the gala preparations armed with a bombshell.
Morris has directed with her customary skill and sensitivity. She shows a feeling for the play’s world, an understanding of its characters and a flair for letting the comedy spring naturally.
Detria Ward is flawless as the imperious Grace, every steely line and pointed gesture conveying that this woman means business. Candice D’Meza’s poised, bright Gracie makes an ideal ingenue heroine. Andrea Boronell conveys quiet strength and diplomacy as Marie, caught between her daughter Gracie and mother-in-law Grace.
Joyce Anastasia’s easily flustered, prone-to-hysteria Catherine is an explosion of hilarity. Derrick Brent II makes a suave, steady Bobby. Bebe Wilson brings wry, worldly edge to scheming Alpha. Florence Garvey is excellent as Lillie, her wary, principled daughter. Autumn Knight strikes the right note as the condescending New York reporter planning an expose on the rituals of Alabama society.
James V. Thomas’ handsome set and Macy Perrone’s grand costumes add to the production’s polished look.
Officially, the complete title is: “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years.” That’s a mouthful — but as beautifully expressed in Cleage’s writing and irresistibly delivered by Morris and her cast, this is one invitation you’d be crazy to refuse.
‘The Nacirema Society’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 21
Where: Ensemble Theatre,
Tickets: $12-$35; 713-520-0055