Sometimes, really strong performances make up for a weak play. That's exactly what happens with Celebration Arts' production of Levee James, by playwright S.M. Shephard-Massat. The two main actors—Alexandra Barthel (seen locally onstage at Folsom’s Falcon’s Eye Theatre and Capital Stage) and James R. Ellison III (Celebration Arts)—elevate a muddled storyline and manage to thoroughly engage the audience throughout this production.
It’s a frustrating endeavor, because Levee James does explore an interesting time and place: Georgia in 1923, where African-American farmers were struggling to make a living and a place for themselves in the local community and economy. It’s also about hidden secrets, and both backcountry and big-city prejudice and violence.
But the storyline is a confusing one and the dialogue a bit stilted, so even though the two main characters—Georgia farmer Wesley (Ellison) and his sister-in-law Lily (Barthel)—face social and racial pressures, most the time it’s not quite clear what’s happening or where the danger is coming from.
In a nutshell, a frustrated Lily returns from being a maid in the big city back to the farm country she grew up in, making a surprise visit to her recently widowed brother-in-law Wesley, and bringing with her the knowledge that cities aren’t any more welcoming to African-Americans than the local white farmers.
Barthel and Ellison breathe life into their characters while also dealing with Southern accents and backcountry dialogue. Their strong performances, along with a third minor character Fizhugh (nicely portrayed by Nathan Marlow), make us care what happens to these two—despite the script and story challenges.