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"Joe Turner's Come and Gone" is the most lyrical drama in August Wilson's monumental 10-play cycle about 20th century black life. It's also the most passionate and religious.

Lincoln Center Theater is giving "Joe Turner" its first major revival since the drama opened on Broadway in 1988. The new production is neither as fluid nor as subtle as the original, but it illuminates the play's religious currents. And in a year when a black man attained the U.S. presidency, the play is an apt reminder of the distance we all have traveled.

Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, "Joe Turner" dramatizes the story of distressed wanderer Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman). With his young daughter (Amari Rose Leigh) in tow, Loomis has been searching for the wife (the excellent Danai Gurira) who apparently abandoned him while he was serving seven years' hard labor. The play's title refers to a song about how the white man swoops down on unsuspecting black men to harness them in chain gangs.

As staged by Bartlett Sher, who directed LCT's supreme revival of "South Pacific," this is an operatic "Joe Turner": imposing, if at times grandiose.

Michael Yeargan's minimal set is backed by the shadowy images of smokestacks towering atop Pittsburgh's steel mills. For Loomis' Christ-like apotheosis at the production's end, Brian MacDeavitt's lighting turns the stage gold.

Back in 1988, Lloyd Richards, Wilson's mentor and devoted director, staged a production filled with distinct voices and characterizations. Sher takes the play to the level of religious parable, an attention-getting and, in its way, forceful approach. But what the play gains in symbolism it loses in delicacy as the larger-than-life style obliterates many of the details of Wilson's wonderful characters.

Still, Sher elicits excellent performances. LaTanya Richardson Jackson infuses Bertha Holly, who runs the boarding house with her husband, Seth (Ernie Hudson), with a vibrant combination of sternness, humor and good sense. Marsha Stephanie Blake particularly is fine as an abandoned wife, and Leigh has an endearing natural presence as Loomis' feisty daughter, Zonia.

Playing the intense, soul-searching Loomis, Coleman ultimately comes into his own in the drama's final scenes. In Coleman's performance, the fury and grief that have been haunting him turn to violence and a kind of grand release as he finally finds the salvation for which he has been desperately seeking. (partialdiff)
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