Artney Jackson' fills WTF's Nikos Stage with light and compassion

From left, Ray Anthony Thomas as Artney Jackson; Michael Braugher as his son, AJ; Christopher Livingston as Zaahir Baldwin; Joshua Boone as Perkins Howard; Portia as Jackie Zinner; and Alfie Fuller as their supervisor, Rhonda Simpson in Williamstown Theatre festival's world premiere production of James Anthony Tyler's "Artney Jackson."

WILLIAMSTOWN — It is still relatively early in the Berkshires' summer theater season but I doubt you will find at any point this summer a group of characters as fresh, warm and affectionately wrought as the four men and two women who inhabit James Anthony Tyler's "Artney Jackson," especially as they are being portrayed by a sublimely accomplished winning ensemble at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage.

Faint echoes of Dominique Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew" reverberate at the fringes of Tyler's astutely observed, compassionate play but there is no question that Tyler is speaking with a voice that is clearly his own.

"Artney Jackson" — which officially opened over the weekend and ends its all-too-brief run Sunday afternoon — is set in the break room (evocatively designed by Arnulfo Maldonado and lit by Isabella Byrd) of a cable company in Las Vegas. The room is the refuge of a five-member team of African-American employees who work in the retention department. They are the frontline in customer relations; the ones who field the calls from generally dissatisfied customers. "I wish I had a button I could push that would make a damn anvil fall right on top of their heads and smash the hell out of them," one of them, Jackie Zinner (impeccably played by Portia), says to her best friend at work, Artney Jackson (Ray Anthony Thomas, who is positively incandescent in this beautifully rendered, funny and moving portrayal), a widower who has been on the job for 25 years. His son, AJ (a pitch-perfect Michael Braugher), who has just marked his second anniversary with the company, is an about-to-turn-30 schizophrenic who has been living with his father and now is determined to move out and make a life for himself. Because he is unable to obtain a driver's license, AJ is trying to persuade his resistant father to rent a U-Haul on his behalf so he can make good on his plan to move out of the family house on the coming weekend. Mindful of what can happen to AJ when he willfully goes off the meds that keeps him rooted,

The confrontations between Artney and AJ are painful and wrenching. As played by Braugher, AJ's determination, his need to be on his own is powerful and urgent. For his part, the love Thomas' Artney has for AJ is palpable as he wrestles with his own needs on the one hand and, on the other, his deeply felt parental responsibility to act in what he sees as his son's best interest. Artney is an overprotective, loving figure in AJ's life and, while he never acknowledges it, he is partly animated by his fear of living alone. Thomas and Braugher playArtney and AJ's scenes together with passion, anger, frustration, menace, a sense of family history ... and love.

Artney's conflict with AJ may provide the opening dramatic salvo in "Artney Jackson" but it is by no means the only one. Artney is in line for a promotion to succeed the team's manager, Rhonda (played perfectly by Alfie Fuller), who, after seven years with the company, is leaving after the last of the five days over which the play's action unfolds. His obstacles are a test he is told, virtually at the last minutes, he will have to take, followed by an interview with the bosses, should he pass.

His friend, Jackie, who continually tempts the weight-conscious Artney with home-baked goodies — a slice of red velvet cake; a serving of banana pudding; a chocolate chip cookie; a cake made for their farewell party for Rhonda — is facing a serious health crisis of her own at a time when she and her husband are in a dire financial bind and the cable company is about to make a cruel shift in employee health coverage.

Perkins (a thoroughly engaging Joshua Boone), has been extremely diligent at saving his earnings to provide a lifestyle that is comfortable and comforting. He is trying to pry from his workmate, lunchmate and friend, Zaahir (an engaging, open Christopher Livingston), the phone number of Zaahir's cousin, whom Perkins is interested in dating. Their friendship is tested when the college-educated Zaahir refuses on the pretext that his cousin is getting ready to leave for Harvard law school. Perkins senses, correctly, that the "goody two-shoes" Zaahir, as Perkins characterizes him at one point, looks down on Perkins, who finally calls Zaahir out. At once, a yawning fissure opens between them.

Under Laura Savia's keen, finely tuned direction, the appeal in this fresh, invigorating production lies in its remarkable authenticity and honesty; its affection for and understanding of Tyler's characters, none of whom is given short shrift. The play draws its title from Artney but each of the people around him is seen in full dimension with all their strengths and weaknesses; each of them recognizable; none of them stereotypical. "Artney Jackson" is all of a piece.

Credit Tyler for resisting the temptation to get on a soap box and preach at us. His characters, all of them, are at the effect of the inequities and imbalances in society. Tyler and Savia have given us a group of decent, hard-working, resourceful people who are doing the best they can to make lemonade from the bushels of lemons they've been given.