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The Amen Corner, Goodman Theatre. The theme running through James Baldwin's classic drama--that eternal regret is the price of piety untempered by compassion--has lost none of its impact since the play's premiere in 1954. Now director Chuck Smith restores this milestone, long relegated to the storefront circuit, to its rightful place in the American repertoire with a nearly flawless production for the Goodman Theatre.

Like many novelists turned playwrights, Baldwin tends to overwrite. But his church setting allows for an almost unbroken stream of anthems, which break up the long passages of lyrical prose. And the Goodman staging features superlative actors chosen as much for their voices--seldom has the sheer harmony of the spoken word been so vividly manifest--as for their other skills.

Pat Bowie plays Sister Margaret Alexander, the pastor plunged into a crisis of faith; Phillip Edward VanLear as her husband and Nikkieli DeMone as her son act as the instruments of her agonizing self-examination; Jacqueline Williams is her sole advocate; and Percy Littleton, Greta Oglesby, and Felicia P. Fields are her severe (but never caricatured) accusers. An insightful, industrious design team complements this stellar ensemble to produce a riveting, articulate (and, at 165 minutes, lengthy) journey through a dark night of the soul.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

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