Lambda Players’ latest production, Burnt Fields, written by the late Jimmy Cliff George and Kurt Gregory VanDover, was originally produced at the Sacramento Metropolitan Community Church some years ago. Constructed from a series of monologues and set in a graveyard in Burnt Fields, Miss., at the turn of the last century, it directly, emotionally addresses issues of race, sexuality, identity and religious bigotry through the people who live and die in this small town.The play includes moments that are nothing short of brilliant, especially a dialogue between the ghosts of master and slave, buried in the same tomb and doomed to haunt each other until their descendants can make peace. Cameron Johnson is by turns hilarious and enraged in a performance that startles the audience almost as much as it does the entitled and privileged Capt. Tyler (Mark Hoffman). “You loved me, didn’t you?” asks the master—a question that only he needs answered.
Another masterful performance comes from veteran Jackie Schultz in dual roles as Miss Shelby McCarver and as the young Shelby’s mother. She controls and then unleashes a damaged emotional center so well that the rawness of the characters pain is palpable.
The three young lovers, young Shelby (Tygar Hicks), J.B. (Chad Jayson Smith) and Gentry (Andrew Harvey Anthony) are appropriately innocent and self-centered, and the bewitching Arrabella (Noemi Rios) provides a smooth transition from tale to tale. Micail Buse as the preacher, who goes from foil to villain, is appropriately full of fire and brimstone.
But the set, which is (as Lambda Players are known for) detailed and lushly decorated, distracts from the production’s emotional impact. Built with at least 10 different levels, the concentration required by the actors to navigate it at times dulls their performances. Given the emotional power of the material, Burnt Fields would have been better served by a simpler set that placed the story and characters at its center. The language of the play is strong enough, when combined with such performances, to carry the play without a quarter-sized church, a marble tomb with a working door and a piano. Sometimes less is more, particularly when the “more” is the weight of history and love.