The play opens with three worshippers: an elder (Eugene Lee), a brother (E. Roger Mitchell), and a missionary (Crystal Fox). The trio are alternately singing and lamenting the heat when they realize the church they’re in is on fire. The elder wonders what to do (“Should I pray? Should I sing? Should I . . . gossip?”), before confessing that he knows who started the blaze.
That initial scene diverges into three main story arcs that come together in the second act. First, the mother of Benny Pride (Autumn Hurlbert) is shot in front of her, forcing her to live in a trailer with her boorish white father, Stoker (Jim Ireland). Mother Sister (Rashad), a reverend in the church and a spiritual healer, lives with her son Shadrack (Jason Dirden). And gravedigger Jeremiah, also played by Eugene Lee, uncovers a singing Bible and falls sick as a result.
Leon has gathered a stellar cast, and the show at its best is luminous. Rashad delivers a mesmerizing performance as the frosty reverend who thaws when she realizes God has sent her a miracle in human form (played by Jonathan Peck as Blacksmith). The three church worshippers switch into different roles effortlessly, and Autumn Hurlbert shines as Benny, literally struck dumb by grief and guilt. The bare-bones set is illuminated by clever staging effects, though flickering images of flames in the second act edge tend toward cliché.
Gardley’s script combines humor with raw, searing emotion. Through the prism of the ferocious heat, anything seems possible, and fire represents a dangerous force balanced only by its opposite element, water. In one scene, Benny’s stepfather, Bobby, declares that he wishes to be neither black nor white but “the color of water.” Mother Sister describes a sound as “like rivers of living water pouring over my heart.” If fire is burning passion, water is cool relief. Not quite a legend and not quite a ghost story, Every Tongue Confess fuses powerful elements of storytelling and myth with a cast that elevates it beyond either genre.
At Arena Stage through January 2. Tickets ($66 to $116) are available here.
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