By Pearl Cleage
Directed by Kenny Leon
With Phylicia Rashad
At the Huntington Theatre Company
Boston --- Through April 6

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Huntington's set for Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky" is stunningly beautiful, and seems to promise a kind of old-fashioned contract with the audience for romance. Whatever happens in the next two hours or so on this stage may involve some strain and some pain, but surely it will all come right in the end, because it happens in a world where love and beauty reign. The set may represent Harlem in 1930, the grim beginning of the Great Depression, but the set is itself a testament to the overwhelming power of style and charm. Susan E. Mickey's costumes, too, are a message, even when what the eye is told is at war with the lines say. A character's clothes-sense may be the butt of another, more sophisticated, character's wittiest fashion critique, but everything everybody wears is gorgeous just the same, stylish and flattering and coordinated to the nth with everything else in view.

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg 's set shows two flats in a brownstone. On the left is the living room and workshop of costume designer Guy Jacobs ( Tyrone Mitchell Henderson ) . A massive bay window dominates the back wall. Masks, hats, fans, feathers, shawls, fringes and spangles are draped artfully everywhere, the colors mainly tangerine, moss and cranberry, but with plentiful patches of contrast; the effect lush, bold, and yet harmonious. Guy is flamboyant, a self-created eccentric aesthete in a show biz version of the artist as high priest of dandyism, and his room has a portrait-shrine dedicated to Josephine Baker, the Negro toast of Paris. The young man dreams of designing costumes for "La Baker" -- his goddess will send him a boat ticket to France, and he will be on his way to a dazzling career in a cosmopolitan land where a Negro who is also a "notorious homosexual" can promenade in elegant clothing without being threatened or abused.

To the right of the building's central hall is a room in Guy's neighbor and friend Delia Patterson's flat, misty green and cream, centered on an inviting kitchen table. Not a riot of sensuality, like Guy's, Delia's neat and pleasant place also welcomes dreams--- the dreams of an idealistic young Christian social worker who hopes to establish one of Margaret Sanger's family planning clinics in Harlem.

Guy brings his old friend Angel Allen ( Phylicia Rashad ) home to sleep at his place after she has made a drunken scene in the nightclub where they both work. Her Italian gangster sugar daddy has married to please his family, and Angel's on-stage tantrum during the floor show has cost the singer her nightclub job and left her homeless--- "her" apartment is the property of the offended gangster. A soft-spoken well-dressed young man from Alabama ( Sean C. Squire ) helps Guy bring his "cousin" Angel home, and then, smitten, disappears into the night.

Although there are hints a-plenty from Cleage that the love-sick young man spells trouble, and that Angel is too damaged by what she has had to do to survive to win through to a happy ending, under Kenny Leon 's expert direction the first act plays like a romantic comedy. The actors sparkle individually, and they strike sparks off each other. Guy, Delia ( Deidrie N. Henry ), Angel and their good friend Dr. Sam Thomas ( John Henry Redwood ) a big-hearted physician who works hard and plays heard --his motto is "Let the good times roll!" -- are such buoyant characters, so full of courage and intelligence and concern for one another, and the actors who play them are so attractive and work together so skillfully as an ensemble, that it seems as if even the worst the world can do to them won't daunt them for long. Dr. Sam begins a touching courtship of the innocent Delia, giving up some of his wild nightclubbing ways even as he encourages the sheltered girl to spread her wings.

The second act of "Blues for an Alabama Sky" veers into tragedy, and although what happens is coincidental it isn't really all that surprising. Still, the realization that nothing will be left of the oasis of beauty and kindness that these people made for each other comes as an emotional shock. It's not the way old-fashioned romantic plays are supposed to end.

Some of the most interesting parts of "Blues" take place offstage. In varying ways and for quite plausible reasons the friends are connected to legendary figures of the Harlem Renaissance like Reverend Adam Clayton Powell and Langston Hughes. The friends' gossip about the demimonde parties and the preaching and the politics is fascinating in itself, as well as being an enlightening sketch of how some of the issues alive today played out in Harlem at the time. This dimension of Cleage's play makes one long to see a movie version, where all the colorful offstage characters and the whole complex web of community life could be filled in as background.

"Blues for an Alabama Sky" comes to the Huntington after a 1995 premiere at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company, which commissioned it from the author. Alliance's Kenny Leon, the director, was previously responsible for the Huntington's fine mountings of "From the Mississippi Delta" and "A Raisin in the Sun". Leon's star, Rashad, is giving a better-than-star performance. She displays a full measure of the charisma that has won the actress a legion of fans on television, the kind of charisma that must also contribute to Cleage's character Angel's precarious success in a cut-throat profession. But Rashad pulls no punches when it comes to Angel's underlying ruthlessness. The woman is a bad angel to those who care about her, and she'd a damn sight rather be a heartless bitch than a pathetic victim. Possibly some of Rashad's fans will find this portrayal of a prostitute disturbing: but a little bit of disturbance is a small price to pay for the riches of the performances and of the play.