Mystery, romance, poetic reveries, folksy humor, matters of race, history and identity. “Bulrusher” has enough ingredients for a compelling coming-of-age play in the mode of a more racially-charged Carson McCullers tale.
Yet Intiman Theatre’s final entry of its 2019 season wades through sluggish waters to get to the most vigorous, engrossing tidal elements in this 2007 drama, a Pulitzer Prize finalist written by Eisa Davis. Valerie Curtis-Newton directs.
The title character (played by an energized, striking Ayo Tushinde) is 18, a mixed-race foundling raised by a stern schoolteacher, Schoolch (Charles Leggett), in the rural Northern California hamlet of Boonville. She’s called Bulrusher, because she was discovered as an abandoned baby floating (in a basket?) on the Navarro River — like Moses in the bulrushes (a biblical comparison she adamantly rejects).
It is 1955, and Bulrusher is now a Boonville misfit. The closest people in her insulated world hang out in the town brothel, conversing in English mingled with Boontling — an actual dialect unique to Boonville that’s derived from Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Spanish and words from the Pomo indigenous people of Northern California. (The Boontling expressions are untranslated here, but pungent.)
The disgruntled Madame (Christine Pilar) rules the bordello with a firm hand and a world-weary sigh. She prides herself on running an efficient operation yet threatens to sell up and move on. Also frequenting her parlor are the taciturn Schoolch and the jovial, garrulous Logger (Reginald André Jackson), a regular brothel client and one of Boonville’s few African Americans.
At two-and-a-half hours, “Bulrusher” slow-walks a first act largely devoted to the kibitzing at Madame’s. More intriguing are Bulrusher’s restlessness and mysticism. With her own business selling oranges, she’s proud of her work ethic and autonomy. But she is agonizingly lonely, despite the cloddish advances of a guitar-toting ex-schoolmate (portrayed with goofy zest by Adam Fontana). And she finds solace communing with the river, and can “read” the future in basins of water and cups of tea.
The play dawdles along until a stranger Bulrusher’s age appears: Vera (Allyson Lee Brown), a refugee from Birmingham, Alabama. In some of the show’s best moments, the naive Bulrusher encounters for the very first time, with amazement and gratitude, another black female. Vera’s warm presence intoxicates her. And Vera’s reports of racial oppression and resistance under Jim Crow segregation educate and enrage her. She becomes aware of the entire construct of race for the first time, and of her burning need to love and belong.
The more animated second act includes a bloody brawl, some shifts in plans and a revelation about Bulrusher’s parentage. But the narrative is so loosely strung, with points made, underscored and repeated. Bulrusher’s internal transformations and the dreamlike passages and flights of lyricism are what most distinguish Davis’ writing — and they are not always well mined in this fairly literal staging by Curtis-Newton on a tiered, minimalist set by Jennifer Zeyl.
There could be more shimmers of magic in the production design, and sparks between the players. The cast is uneven, and not always on the same page as they wrestle with enigmatic, sometimes inconsistent roles.
Tushinde, tomboyish in plaid shirt and overalls, is most effective expressing Bulrusher’s social awkwardness, her confusion and awe. Jackson brings a jazzy bawdiness to Logger, with welcome blasts of comic relief and compassion. And Brown exudes more honey-sweet innocence than hard experience, but that suffices.
Yet where’s the romantic tension in the supposed rivalry between Logger and Leggett’s glum Schoolch for Madame’s affections? And who exactly is Madame? Pilar stays mostly in the shallows, relying on stiff postures and prim resignation that don’t plumb this difficult woman — a self-made achiever in a dicey business, a forthright gal with a guarded heart full of regrets. In the play and the performance, it takes too long to find out the what, and the why, of those regrets.
“Bulrusher” by Eisa Davis. Through Sept. 14; Intiman Theatre at Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way N.E., Seattle; at least 24 free walk-up tickets available beginning one hour before curtain, advance tickets start at $15; 206-315-5838, intiman.org