Essential’s ‘Uganda Play’ veers all over the place


THEATER REVIEW

“That Uganda Play”

Grade: C+

Through Aug. 16. 8 p.m. July 25, July 30-31, Aug. 2, Aug. 7-8, Aug. 11, 13 and 16; 2 p.m. Aug. 3; 7 p.m. Aug. 10. $18-$23. West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., Atlanta. 1-866-811-4111, www.essentialtheatre.com.

Bottom line: Ambitious but unwieldy.

Atlanta playwright Theroun Patterson’s dense drama “That Uganda Play” is easier to respect for what it attempts than for what it actually achieves.

A co-winner of this year’s Essential Theatre Playwriting Award (with fellow Atlantan Karla Jennings’ “Ravens & Seagulls”), it’s filled with enough interesting characters, subplots and issues to probably support several plays. But the effect of rolling them all into one basically weighs down “That Uganda Play.”

It unfolds at a methodical pace that can feel heavy and slow. Literally and figuratively, it’s all over the map — the action alternates between Africa and America, between dreams and reality. It’s by turns complex and confounding, with so many things going on that just following and keeping track of them is a daunting task.

In one sense, that’s a good problem to have — better a play try to do too much than too little, to give you more to think about than not enough. Patterson, whose fine 2011 family drama “A Thousand Circlets” also won the annual Essential prize, deserves the proverbial A for effort, but his reach ultimately exceeds his grasp.

There’s a suitably stark mood to director Amber Bradshaw’s Essential production of “That Uganda Play,” and an earnest determination in the performances of her nine actors. Still, by covering so much ground and spreading our attention among so many characters and storylines, Patterson makes it harder for us to form a real emotional connection with any particular one of them.

The play is inspired by current events involving the controversial anti-gay legislation in Uganda. Dembe (Olubajo Sonubi), who holds an ill-defined position of authority in the Ugandan government, and Reed (Brody Wellmaker), who represents an equally vague “foundation” back in the States, initially join forces to arrange for free medical care to combat Uganda’s growing HIV epidemic.

But their humanitarian intentions gradually reveal darker ulterior motives, certain political agendas and corporate considerations that have less to do with “helping people” than exploiting the situation for personal gain.

We meet Reed’s “cryptic” wife (Jennifer Alice Acker) and his ailing, high-powered father (Alex Van), who runs the foundation. And the investigative reporter who threatens to expose them, who happens to be Reed’s former lover (Sedonia Monet).

Monet also plays an alluring variation of that role in a number of dream sequences. Kevin Stillwell is similarly double-cast as both the father’s “henchman” by day, as it were, and as an ominous figment of Dembe’s own dream state by night.

Dembe’s back story introduces us to his impoverished sister (Portia Cue), as well, and her fateful relationship with another woman in the village. We meet that other woman (Tiffany Denise Mitchenor), too, who’s now teaching poetry in the States. And even her current girlfriend (Blaire Hillman), one of her college students.

Scenes set in different times or places periodically overlap or coincide, and Bradshaw’s use of video projections (designed by Scott Howard) effectively distinguishes between them — at least in part. Otherwise, the play’s dramatic waters are so muddy that finding a clear focus finally eludes it.