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Beautiful Things a wonderful story
Beautiful Things a wonderful story
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through May 9


The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was a 2008 Seattle Reads pick. The novel is by an Ethiopian, Dinaw Mengestu, who came here when he was 2 years old. He wanted to reflect on the experience of many Ethiopians who fled their country and settled in very different places, then had to adapt and find a new meaning to "home." Book-It Repertory has created an original adaptation, done by Kevin McKeon, who has been associated with Book-It for some time.

The main character is Sepha Stephanos, played by Sylvester Foday Kamara. Sepha has lived in Washington D.C.'s Logan Circle neighborhood for a long time. He owns a small convenience store and as the blacks have moved out and the upwardly mobile have moved in, fewer and fewer people patronize his store. Sepha has dreams of what his American life should look like, but traumas from his homeland follow him and shrink his abilities to actualize his dreams. A major character issue is not being able to connect with the people around him well, so he's lonely and isolated, except for a couple of friends. Joseph (Earl Alexander) and Kenneth (Reginald Andre Jackson) visit Sepha once a week and play "name that dictator" games, a darkly comic game. Then a white woman, Judith (Myra Platt), and her mixed-race daughter Naomi (Olachi Anamelechi) move in across the street. First, Naomi finds refuge in Sepha's store and then draws her mother in, and Judith finds herself attracted to Sepha.

The tensions rise in the neighborhood and Sepha sometimes pretends that he has nothing to do with the little family across the street. This is not a noble way to manage his feelings. A successful outcome does not seem imminent.

Other characters include flashbacks with Sepha's uncle and mother (Earl Alexander and Tracy Michelle Hughes), and Lori Evans, James Thomas Patrick and Alicia Stamps play various parts. Through the flashbacks we learn some of the trauma Sepha has endured through the loss of his father and the escape to a new land.

The cast is strong and powerful, led by Kamara and Anamelechi. Kamara is touching and makes us feel his loneliness and paralysis. Anamelechi is engaging and positive and energetic, an accomplished young actress who gets this part exactly right. Platt lets go of her administrative roles at Book-It and gives a warm but careful performance, letting us see her feelings for Sepha and her hesitancy at pursuing the relationship. Tracy Michelle Hughes is tragically underused, except for an extraordinary scene at the end of Act One as Sepha's mother. Hopefully that is sustenance enough for her.

The play, and maybe the book, doesn't really "go" anywhere. We are not led to think of a happy ending, nor do we know that Sepha heads towards more defeat. Yet, it's not quite slice-of-life. So, perhaps the story is just not quite finished, and that's a bit unsettling. The set by Curtis Taylor is really wonderful with an updated, classy house on one side and the dilapidated store on the other. Costumes by Christine Meyers are particularly good regarding the ethnic garb. Lighting by Andrew D. Smith and sound by Jason Gorgen add much to the atmosphere, and technical effects are showy and well done. Dialect is tricky here; there are many different kinds of English spoken, but it sounds like the assistance from dialect coach Gin Hammond was effective.

There is some extraordinary artwork that was created for this program that is for purchase in the lobby. Paintings were made from photographs of cast members as characters. They are quite beautiful pieces.

The attempt to bring us an atmosphere we are unfamiliar with, and to open our eyes to cultures around us that we may not penetrate is rewarding. Even if the ending isn't quite an ending, the beginning and the middle are a wonderful story. Where else but Book-It could we experience such a tale? For more information, go to www.book-it.org or call 206-216-0833.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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