Review: Gravity and tension in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ at Goodman Theatre

In August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the most mystical of Wilson’s 10 great American plays, everyone is lost and yet hoping to be found.

Such was the lot of Black America, Wilson argued in this 1984 work set during the tumultuous transition from South to North and property to personhood. The characters in this play, set in the 1910s in a Pittsburgh boarding house run by the nervous Seth Holly (the warm-centered Dexter Zollicoffer) are constantly on the move, searching for someone, escaping from someone, likely both at once. And this being America, a cottage industry already has sprung up in the business of people finding, even though the people finders, such as Rutherford Selig (Gary Houston), also may double as the people losers. Selig is one of the very few white characters in Wilson’s plays and, as Houston well understands, his role here is to at first make you wonder if that’s really true. At first.

In this play above all others, Wilson articulated his belief that the ripping asunder of the Black family under slavery was the defining sin of the 20th century, rippling across each and every decade. Wilson tried on different dramatic styles throughout his opus. Many were naturalistic but “King Hedley II” was his version of a Greek tragedy and “Joe Turner” was his deepest venture into expressionism, conveying as it does the idea of characters who cannot fully control their own trajectories as they venture north for work in the steel mills, forced to look back over their shoulders with every step. At times, “Joe Turner” is like Sartre’s “No Exit,” with a wandering purgatory replacing the hell of slavery. It’s probably fair to say that it was Wilson’s favorite of the 10, along with “Hedley.” And at a moment when migrants are much in the news, it’s especially resonant. Plenty of Americans became migrants in their own land.

So it’s apt that a huge door sits center stage in Chuck Smith’s new Goodman Theatre production, and that it doesn’t lead to a home but to a $2-a-week boarding house with a revolving set of residents. On its threshold arrives A.C. Smith in the person of Herald Loomis, a desperate man to whom the worst has been done and who clings to his daughter like Orpheus to Eurydice, even as he searches for his lost wife, Martha (Shariba Rivers).

Smith is a large man and a deeply experienced purveyor of Wilsonian wisdom (Wilson himself used to tell me how much he admired Smith). He’s an actor who understands how his characters invariably suffer from great stress and how the world for this soul is such that he can’t trust or ever relax. Thus, Smith’s head spins, jolts and turns with every unexpected sound, terrified at what they may foretell for Loomis and his broken family.

Others seeking safe haven follow, such as the sad-eyed Mattie Campbell (Nambi E. Kelley carrying her character’s pain in her face), and the well-armed Molly Cunningham (the very present Krystel V. McNeil), a woman whose knows her own smarts are about all she can trust. They join at the breakfast table with Bynum Walker (a sharp-edged Tim Rhoze), a wound-tight maverick who knows far more than he reveals, Bertha Holly (played by TayLar as the rock of the establishment) and Jeremy Furlow (Anthony Fleming III), a younger, more energetic man who Wilson makes clear is starting out with a deck stacked against his every move. It’s good to see Fleming on stage again; he’s a definitive Chicago purveyor of optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Director Smith leans into the drama’s creepier and most subversive aspects, with the help of Linda Buchanan’s stacked-up set, an environment at once realistic, symbolic and skeletal. There’s always humor in Wilson plays. But when A.C. Smith’s Loomis come crashing down, you feel the tremors.

Smith is working here with an all-Chicago cast, many veterans of many a Wilson play, and all fully at ease working with each other. One of Wilson’s legacies is his creation of a loosely defined ensemble, still very much going strong at the Goodman Theatre and throughout Chicago, at least as long as Chuck Smith is around.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (4 stars)

When: Through May 19

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Tickets: $25-$90 at 312-443-3800 and