Theater review: "Bobbie and Jerome," a new play on stage at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, delivers fine performances, with Marcel Davis creating an especially searing character. It plays at the Seattle performing arts center through Oct. 26, 2008.

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Theater Review |

America is often touted as the land of second chances, where people can invent a new, brighter future. The American story can also show a more menacing side: a place where you can’t escape your past.

Playwright Daniel W. Owens, who lives in Seattle, interweaves these conflicting themes into his new play, “Bobbie and Jerome,” which is receiving its world premiere at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.

Owens and Langston Hughes artistic director Jacqueline Moscou have been developing this script for more than four years. What they bring to the stage is a piece of theater that needs a further bit of shaping — but its visceral power is firmly in place.

Set in Harlem in the 1990s, the action centers on two cousins: Bobbie (G. To’mas Jones) and Jerome (Marcel Davis). Through a narrative, expository device, the audience learn that Bobbie and Jerome grew up into a life of hard-core drugs and petty crime. One day Jerome, badly strung out, wandered into the stone yard of a Harlem cathedral where he is “blinded by stone” — the white blazing sunlight coming off the statues being created as part of the church’s restoration. Here, he found his salvation.

Using all his charm, Jerome persuaded the master stonemason to take him on, and he takes to the profession with an artist’s passion. Later, Jerome brought Bobbie into the stone carvers’ fold.

But Bobbie was in too deep with bad people. When Jerome tried to rescue him for the umpteenth time, Jerome’s life is shattered. He dropped out of sight. Now, three years later, Jerome returns to the workshop where Bobbie has become head stone carver.

Something has got to give.

What the play tries to balance is an escalating tension between raw feeling and soulful metaphor. Sometimes, the script’s reach for the poetic is at odds with character, such as in Jerome’s extended monologue about his finding a life’s purpose. Also, there are times when Jerome’s motivations seem overly convoluted: Does he want to wreck Bobbie’s life, show him up or just vent his rage?

That said, new, engaging work, well performed, has an excitement that floods a stage and all three actors hum with fearless energy under Moscou’s sensitive direction.

As Errol, the master mason, Ron Davids is totally convincing, a man as hard-nosed as a chisel, with a weakness for booze and a colorblind respect for talent. Jones skillfully creates a conflicted Bobbie, who is haunted by his past choices and his fragile future.

But the character who matters most for the show’s success is Jerome. Davis burns Jerome’s lines into your brain. Cagey, jokey, in constant physical pain, his anguish never feels false.

The technical crew do fine work, also. Set designer Tommer Peterson’s dusty workshop, framed upstage center by a tall sketch of a cathedral nave, nicely suggests both the yearning for big dreams and the day-to-day struggles with stone carving. And sound designer Herbert Thompson contributes some moody jazz that keeps things dark around the edges.