Theater review: CATCO's "Pierce to the Soul"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

As a barber, as a woodcarver, as a preacher and as a human being, Elijah Pierce learned one chief lesson: "You got to know what to cut and what to keep." As a playwright, Chiquita Mullins Lee must have learned the same.

Although playgoers can't know what Lee chose to cut, her play about the world-renowned local sculptor, "Pierce to the Soul," tells us that she has a keen sense of what to keep.

What she's kept - and the manner in which Alan Bomar Jones brings Pierce to vivid life - makes CATCO's world-premiere one-man show entertaining and engaging.

Jones may have more skin on his bones than the familiar images we have of the gaunt Pierce, who died in 1984 at the age of 92. But his portrayal is more than skin deep. It radiates from the inside out with the humor, the spirituality, the curiosity, the mischievousness and the gentility that made Pierce who he was.

The actor interacts with the audience as a local legend regaling visitors with tales from his long and adventurous life.

Playwright Lee, actor Jones, and director Geoffrey Nelson all have lots of fun with the conceit that the audience has shown up at Pierce's E. Long Street barber shop as he prepares to visit Washington, D.C., to receive a national arts fellowship in 1982.

Set designer Edith Dinger Wadkins evokes Pierce's Columbus shop with a vintage barber chair, a worktable, scattered wood shavings, some cluttered shelves and other paraphernalia.

The only major disappointment with both the set and the play is the relative scarcity of examples of Pierce's artwork, even in reproductions. It was the art that eventually brought attention to the life, after all.

Given how interwoven the two were - Pierce grew famous for his biblical and religious carvings, but also often depicted scenes from his personal past - it's a shame not to show off more of them.

Lee has Pierce tell the engrossing tale of his narrow escape from being framed for a murder. When he tells us that he later carved the incident as "Elijah Escapes from the Mob," we want to see it.

That is, of course, partly a testament to Lee's writing, Nelson's direction and Jones' performance. Jones brings the words to such life that we long for more. When he tells the story of the cancer death of Cornelia Houeston, Pierce's wife of 25 years, Jones isn't the only one crying.

Some five years in the making, Lee's play is a major accomplishment for CATCO and should not be missed.

Chiquita Mullins Lee's "Pierce to the Soul"

When: Through April 25

Where: Riffe Center Studio Two Theatre, Downtown