Play: “The Fall of Heaven”
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through January 30
Tickets: From $18.50; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Tempest Landry is in a quandary. When police think that he is pointing a gun at them, he is shot 17 times and killed on the streets of Harlem. Soon after, he arrives at the Pearly Gates of heaven, where St. Peter pronounces the decree that Tempest has been condemned to hell for his actions on Earth. Tempest, however, refuses to accept the verdict, which confounds St. Peter. The gatekeeper then decides to send Tempest back to Earth with an “accounting angel” named Joshua to realize the errors of his ways and to accept his fate.
Instead, Tempest tries to resume his old life. In a new body, though, he is unrecognizable to his wife and kids and even to his mother. He hooks up with his girlfriend Alfreda, who also fails to recognize him. When he meets a kindly new woman named Branwyn, his life is further complicated by Joshua’s own growing feelings in his human form and his own love for the young woman, as both ‘men’ are attracted to her. Tempest subsequently is befriended by a slick talker named Basil Bob, who showers the impoverished black man with riches and a ‘deal’ for eternity. Alarmed by this development, Joshua works to bring his charge back to the flock and to the celestial order of the Almighty. But will he succeed?
Highlights: Based on his novel, “The Tempest Tales,” this is the first play by renowned crime novelist Walter Mosley, who has penned nearly three dozen novels, including the Easy Rawlins series of mysteries as well as science fiction, a young adult novel and political monographs. The Rep’s presentation marks the second production of “The Fall of Heaven,” which debuted in January 2010 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park and won six Acclaim Awards in the Queen City. Under associate director Seth Gordon’s careful guidance, The Rep’s rendition received a rousing standing ovation on opening night by an appreciative audience.
Other Info: That standing ovation, though robust, was not unanimous. In his program notes, Rep artistic director Steven Woolf observes that Mosley has explained that “writing for the stage brings a new kind of challenge to him because…the characters live through dialogue and action…translating into stage language is a unique challenge for someone who has been writing books for such a long time.”
And that’s the fundamental problem with this adaptation. The language is far too often hackneyed and clichéd, the dialogue is painfully stilted and the situations are almost always predictable, despite the fantasy setting. With dozens of books to his credit and multiple awards for his efforts, Mosley obviously is a talented wordsmith in other art forms. That isn’t apparent, however, in this wooden and disappointingly lumbering exercise. It hurts, too, with names that are too trite (“Basil Bob” for the devil, “Tempest” being a combination of the Latin word tempus for ‘time’ and the noun that describes the protagonist’s feisty personality), which might work on the page but suffer on the stage. And the plot itself, rich with possibilities, comes across as “City of Angels” meets “The Twilight Zone.”
Bryan Terrell Clark brings considerable charm and energy to the role of Tempest and plays well off the restrained, proper decorum of Corey Allen as the orderly but increasingly perplexed Joshua. Kenya Brome adds a nice touch as the gentle Branwyn and Rachel Leslie brings sass and humor to the roles of Alfreda and Darlene, the cocky office assistant at the accounting firm where Joshua plies his earthly trade. Jeffrey C. Hawkins has the dubious distinction of handling the painfully heavy lines of Basil Bob, who quickly gives away his netherworld intentions, while Jerome Lowe and Borris York perform sundry ensemble bits.
Robert Mark Morgan’s scenic design is mundane but effective enough in conveying a Harlem street scene, less successful with the other-worldly settings, and is illuminated satisfactorily if unspectacularly by Michael Lincoln’s lighting design. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes suitably capture the various characters, albeit a bit too predictably with Bob’s red and black attire, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design is kind of a ‘Motown’s Second-Greatest Hits’ cavalcade.
“The Fall of Heaven” was a resounding success to most patrons on opening night, but I must have been in a personal limbo.
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.