Listening to the words of playwright Lydia R. Diamond as they tumble from the mouths of five actors in M Ensemble’s new production of The Gift Horse, one thing is sparklingly clear: This is the work of a prodigiously talented, imaginative playwright.
Diamond, whose play Stick Fly was produced on Broadway in 2011, is a celebrated writer and drama professor whose award-winning works have been widely produced. The Gift Horse, one of her earlier plays, debuted in 2002 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. And though at different times the script seems underwritten or overwritten, Diamond’s voice is captivating and powerful.
The central expression of that voice in The Gift Horse (the title refers to the saying “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”) comes from a complicated woman named Ruth. Initially, Ruth (Carey Brianna Hart) seems to have it made. She’s a therapist happily married to a psychiatrist named Brian (André L. Gainey), who happens to be her ex-shrink. The two are highly educated black professionals, well suited to each other and lustily in love.
But as Ruth begins to look back on her life, her words underscore a truth. Contentment — marital, mental, spiritual — can be elusive and fleeting.
Like her college roommate and gay soulmate Ernesto (Andy Barbosa), the younger Ruth longs for an overwhelming love. Ernesto, also a psychologist, thinks he’s found it in Bill (Othon Cardelle), an adventurous take-charge guy whose self-described accomplishments send up a red flag for Ruth but not for the besotted Ernesto.
Entering therapy, Ruth falls hard and fast for Brian, though he keeps his professional distance as he burrows down to the devastatingly painful source of Ruth’s issues with intimacy, men and feeling safe as she surrenders to sleep. What she has suppressed and denied finally surfaces as emotional hell on the way to healing.
Two other characters become part of the intertwined lives in The Gift Horse. Noah (Cardelle again) comes into Ernesto’s world after Ruth’s dearest friend has suffered and found ways to function again. And Jordan (Janice G. Muller), an articulate and mysterious violinist, finally surprises an audience she occasionally coaxes into interaction by revealing how her story meshes with the others.
M Ensemble’s production, staged in a small space at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay, has been directed by Lowell Williams, who holds master’s degrees in both theater and psychology. One can only imagine the special insight he brought into the rehearsal room.
The Gift Horse is, though, a daring and challenging play, meaty fare that anyone drawn to thought-provoking drama should be glad M Ensemble decided to take on. Thursday’s opening night performance was uneven, with plenty of absorbing highs offset by a few fixable flaws (missed lighting cues sometimes left the actors and the audience in the dark), which may improve or disappear during the play’s three-weekend run.
Hart is a charismatic, fully invested Ruth, but like nearly all the actors she has problems with projection. Barbosa is a dynamic young actor who was trained in Havana, relatively new to Miami theater. His character is Latino, but Barbosa’s English is so heavily accented that some of his lines are lost — however, he delivers some of the most emotionally honest, moving acting in the show.
Muller, who has a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Miami, is an accomplished violinist and an intriguing actor, expressive in both words and music. Cardelle is better as the low-key Noah than as creepy-with-a-bad-wig Bill. Though Gainey gets to cut loose physically and emotionally once Brian and Ruth become a couple, he is so blunted in affect during the therapy scenes (yes, I know, it’s a shrink thing) that he seems almost robotic.
As drawn by the gifted Diamond, the characters in The Gift Horse — black and Latino, straight and gay — will resonate with anyone trying to understand and negotiate this journey called life. Here’s hoping that, from its decent starting point, M Ensemble’s production will grow sharper, tighter and deeper.
If you go
What: ‘The Gift Horse’ by Lydia R. Diamond.
Where: M Ensemble production at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay.
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 8.
Cost: $25 ($20 seniors and students).
Information: 786-573-5300 or www.smdcac.org.