Samuel L. Kelley set his play Pill Hill in Chicago, but it could just as easily take place in Baltimore, or any city where a steel mill offers steady employment - for as long as the mill stays in business.
At Arena Players, under Amini Johari-Courts' direction, an impressive acting ensemble portrays six black mill workers whose fortunes are changing. Though some of these men are trapped by the mill, others will escape it, and maybe, just maybe, succeed in buying a house in the fancy "Pill Hill" district.
Kelley structures his play in three acts that take place at five-year intervals, from 1973 to 1983. In each case, the six characters, who are friends, gather in the modest apartment of Joe, a dissatisfied worker who dreams of going to college and law school but keeps claiming he's just staying at the mill long enough to get his next few paychecks.
Marc Stevens gives a strong portrayal of this central character, who is truly an "average Joe," a man who gets left behind when his friends move on. He's also a man with a dangerous combination of hostility toward his employer and inertia.
Joe's closest friend, Ed, has already separated himself from the mill when the play begins and is on the path to becoming a legal star. In act three, he's become the first black lawyer in a big Chicago firm, but at a price - he's been assigned to defend a corporation against claims from its workers. A man of conscience, Ed grapples with the hard irony of doing his blue-collar cohorts proud at the same time that he uses his legal skills against men just like them.
While Ed may be a hot-shot in the legal world, he's also a decent, modest man, and Jerome Banks-Bey imbues him with humility and a genuine desire to help his buddy Joe improve his lot. (In the first two acts, he repeatedly presses his procrastinating friend to fill out a college application.)
One of the most powerful performances comes from a secondary character, Charlie, the oldest member of the group. At the start of the play, Charlie has 20 years of experience at the mill, and unlike his friends, he has no desire to quit. To the contrary, he moved to Chicago from the South to earn a comfortable living there and support his family, and for the most part, he's managed to do that.
Portrayed with quiet dignity by William Walker, Charlie is a hard worker who doesn't like to make a fuss. But the most moving section of the evening comes when Walker re-enacts Charlie's encounter with the law years earlier, when he proudly drove his new Cadillac home to Mississippi (an incident reminiscent of the pivotal event in Ragtime).
The other three characters go on to become a top-notch salesman (DCarter, as the only genuinely contented man in the group), a Realtor (Janatus Avonte Barnett) and a self-professed record company employee (Tyrone Alonzo Requer) whose overactive beeper suggests he's in another line of work.
Though the play's structure is a bit formulaic, the speeches, at their best, have the simple grandeur of August Wilson's monologues. In addition, like Wilson's characters, the specificity of Kelley's characters - believably and vividly realized at Arena Players - offers a universal look at anyone who has yearned to break through a socioeconomic barrier. It's a yearning, Pill Hill suggests, that can require the inner strength of steel itself.
Pill Hill continues through Feb. 18 at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St. $15. Call 410-728-6500.
Just `Kickin' It'
Now in its second year, Center Stage's "Kickin' It with the 'Rents" program allows parents and children to take in a performance, as well as dinner and a pre-show discussion with the cast members, for $8 per person. Designated performances are 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 for Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind (dinner at 6 p.m.) and 8 p.m. April 5 for Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (dinner at 6:30 p.m.). Two adults may attend for each child younger than 18.
Tickets, which are limited, can be purchased at the box office, 700 N. Calvert St., or by calling 410-332-0033. For more information, call 410-486-4050 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.