The mission of Bartlett Theater is to spend its season highlighting one play by a selected playwright (this year Tennessee Wiliams, displayed in their exceptional production of Glass Menagerie), a playwright he has influenced (Lynn Nottage), and a playwright who influenced him (their upcoming Eno River site-specific production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull sounds like a worthy adventure). Nottage’s play Crumbs From The Table of Joy, currently playing at the PSI Theatre in the Durham Arts Council, resonated with winning performances by its leads, despite a script that gives rose-colored views of difficult topics.

Crumbs is told through the eyes of our heroine, Ernestine Crump, one of two daughters of Godfrey Crump, a bread baker who moves his family north to Brooklyn by the mail-order request of Father Divine, an unseen evangelist Godfrey has turned to idolizing following the death of his wife. Godfrey, fighting racism on the job by day and maturing daughters by night, detaches himself from the lives of Ernestine (nicknamed “Ernie”) and Ermina.

“Virtue, Victory, Virginity,” Godfrey recites, looking at a portrait of Father Divine. His faith persuades him he is, indeed, helping the family when in fact he is only distancing himself from them.

This manifests itself in the arrival of Lily Ann Green, their aunt, whose “5th Avenue behavior” of staying out late, drinking in the afternoon, and dancing the mambo opens the daughters’ eyes to the real world outside of their apartment. Her ideals about fair labor and freedom, saying she shares these with members of the Communist Party, get Ernie in trouble at school, not helping the family’s image in the neighborhood.

Godfrey, in finally thinking of himself, meets, falls in love with, and marries Grete, a German woman who emigrated from Europe to the States with her life in suitcases. The daughters and Lily are not amused, tensions rising to a boiling point.

This bears the influence of Williams on Nottage, or, as this early play of Nottage displays, a lack thereof. Williams was a master craftsman at luring in his audience with familiar settings, dialect, and characters before shocking revelations arise that invert everything that came before. Nottage’s play teases at this build-up, but never quite stays consistent. The direction by Karen Dacons-Brock captured each scene’s poignancy, though the underlying buildup of tension wore thin well into the second act. This fault I attribute to the play, which introduces thematic elements Nottage would later perfect in her play Intimate Apparel (seen a month ago down the road at PlayMakers Rep).

Though the play is only a tasting of Nottage’s brilliance, the sentimental tone that plays throughout is never distracting and does not elicit any eye rolls. The sincerity of the play was captured in the performances by the ensemble. Emily Reider’s Grete was a well-crafted troubled soul who finds herself isolated when no one except Godfrey desires to connect with her. Even in her dialogue-less moments, Reider communicated the unspeakable in her expressions, similar to an actress the play parodies: Marlene Dietrich.

Melanie Matthews’ Lily Ann Green reached her high mark on opening night in Act II, balancing Lily’s dependence on the kindness of strangers with her yearn to settle down with the man she loves. Jade Arnold’s Godfrey keeps his family as put together as he is able to, even when he himself is spiraling out of control. This performance has solidified Arnold’s masterful ability to craft an achingly beautiful portrayal of a lost man.

Moriah Williams was impressive as Ermina, and a perfect foil for LaKeish Coffey (Ernie), who delivered what may have been the most memorable part of the evening. The play rides on Coffey’s performance, who took the script’s sentimental tone into a personal reflection of a woman at a crossroads in her life.

The black box PSI Theatre invokes a special kind of intimacy thanks to Amanda Warriner’s spare set that pushes the actors to the forefront in certain scenes and on far sides of the stage in others. The lighting and sound design by Stevan Dupor are particularly of note, especially during fantasy sequences, and accentuate Pam Bond’s sumptuous costumes beautifully.

Ernie bears less resemblance to any Williams heroine and more to Anne Frank, whose record of her family turned into a personal reflection on growing up and living in trying times. Ernie, like Anne, struggles to understand her body, the world around her (and how it can be so cruel), but believes, as Nottage says underneath it all, that people are inherently good. Bartlett Theater’s adventurous programming of this little-known play promotes the inherent goodness of people and will uplift audiences with its top-notch production.

Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues through Sunday, March 12. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.