‘Water’ not a quincher, but it does help thirst

Who among us couldn’t use “A Cool Drink a Water” during these summer days? Horizon Theatre’s new production is a rather unexpected breath of fresh air, as Atlanta playwright Thomas W. Jones II seems to be asking for trouble from the start, by daring to toy at all with the classic “A Raisin in the Sun.” Since this is the same Little Five Points group that likes to bill some of its shows as “ ‘The Colored Museum’ meets ‘SNL’ ” or “ ‘Soul Food’ meets ‘The Waltons,’ ” take it as a promising sign that nobody’s calling this one “Tyler Perry meets Lorraine Hansberry.”

Hansberry’s 1950s drama depicted the struggles of an inner-city black family dreaming of a better life in the suburbs. Not exactly a sequel (their names have been changed, ever so slightly), Jones’ present-day update finds the Young family — or at least Walt, the head of the house — looking to get out of their gated community and move to the country. “I’m too old to start over,” his wife admits, when Walt tells her he wants to open a B&B. “And I’m too young not to,” he replies.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that “Water” turns out to be more comedic in tone, but it can make for an awkward, uneven fit with the serious parts of the story. The script often wavers from one extreme to the other or tries to cover all of its bases at once. In a couple of scenes, while these characters over here are having an intimate conversation, those over there are acting silly.

At first, you wish Jones had done something more original with the character of Walt’s 20-something son than to make him yet another aspiring rapper. Later, he does too much with him, and in too little time. With no warning or set-up, the kid’s suddenly brandishing weapons, applying war paint (never mind the blond wig) and spouting a newfound revolutionary consciousness. And how does Walt reply, in the end? With a pithy one-liner about RuPaul.

Jones has written and/or directed several notable Horizon shows over the past few seasons (“Two Queens, One Castle,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Three Sistahs”). What makes “Water” a virtual cause for celebration is that it returns him to the stage as an actor, his first local appearance in years. Sure, some of the material he’s written for himself as Walt is borderline-indulgent, but he’s such an irresistible presence, such a welcome sight, you almost want to forgive him anything.

His performance alone might be enough to recommend the show. As a plus, director Andrea Frye also elicits splendid work from Marguerite Hannah as Walt’s sister, who’s having marital problems (among other crises of hope and faith) — and especially from the venerable Bernardine Mitchell as the spirit of their dearly departed Mama. It’s a rare non-singing role for the seasoned musical star, and it’s nice to be reminded that she’s no less skillful a straight actress.

“A Cool Drink a Water” is no “A Raisin in the Sun,” of course, but with its style and substance, it’s not quite “Walt Young’s House of Pain,” either. That in itself is amply refreshing.

"A Cool Drink a Water"
Through Aug. 23. $15-$25. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. N.E. 404-584-7450. horizontheatre.com.
Grade: B
The bottom line: A nervy comedic update of a landmark drama, and a welcome return to the stage for actor Thomas W. Jones II.