THE GRANDMAMA TREE: A Folk Fable, ETA Creative Arts Foundation. The rather conventional idea that young people could learn a thing or two from old-timers gets a fairly witty and inventive treatment in Benard Cummings's "folk fable." Young, well-meaning Alfonso is hiding out in the woods after shooting his pregnant girlfriend's brother, apparently in self-defense. While on the lam, he encounters the mystical, somewhat witchlike midwife Mama Olun, who schools him in folk remedies and offers homespun wisdom, leading him toward manhood and reconciliation with his girlfriend's headstrong mother.
In ETA's Chicago premiere of the play, Edward Lee Shines III as Alfonso and Ira Carol McGill as Mama Olun demonstrate great chemistry, and their scenes together are both wise and whimsical. Cummings's writing in these scenes often successfully blends the earthy and the lyrical, juxtaposing the characters' urban and primordial worlds. At its best, the play suggests Romeo and Juliet infused with the haunting magic realism of Toni Morrison.
But The Grandmama Tree can be repetitive, and despite the simplicity of its story, a number of plot points remain murky. ETA's production fails to clarify these points. At times Cummings leans heavily on cliches ("Time is moving and waiting for no one," "The past is past"), undercutting the fresh ways in which other truisms are presented in the play. --Adam Langer