BELLE by Florence Gibson, directed by Ken Gass, with Yanna McIntosh, Nigel Shawn Williams, Alex Poch-Goldin, Soo Garay and Karen Robinson. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Runs to April 21, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday and Sunday 2 pm. $20-$28, Sunday pwyc-$20. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
florence gibson's award-win-ning Belle makes issues of freedom, racism and feminism into an evocative blend. A period piece -- it's set in the U.S. in the years after the Civil War -- though with a peculiarly modern tang, the lyrical play follows the fortunes of Belle (Yanna McIntosh) and her husband, Bowlyn (Nigel Shawn Williams), freed slaves who move to the North and become involved in a tangled net of politics both public and personal.
Gibson's poetic language is sometimes so dense it's hard to take in on a single hearing, but there's a magic to her imagistic speeches. They're brought to striking life by the cast, which includes Soo Garay as the privileged Nance, who draws the black couple into her vision of female emancipation; Alex Poch-Goldin's Lackey, a disenfranchised (though not in the voting sense) southerner who works for the party in power; and Karen Robinson as Belle's otherworldly, mystic sister Althea.
They all bring strong detail to their work under Ken Gass's direction, ranging from the initial touch of ingenuousness in Lackey, to the crinolined Nance's blindness to her condescension, and the terrible sense of knowing power that Althea holds in reserve.
Williams first bursts with the exuberance of Bowlyn's dreams of being his own person and later aches with the loss he suffers. But it's McIntosh, in a breathtakingly simple though rich performance, who grounds the piece in Belle's practicality and quiet emotion.
Still, something about the characters and how Gibson advances them in the world of the play doesn't feel quite right. Often -- especially in the first act -- there's a sense that Gibson has schematized them as types rather than individuals, developing them as part of a striking thesis rather than through the characters' own needs. As a result, the production is marked by a degree of intellectual coolness that even the fine cast can't overcome.