It was the day of the funeral of Dembe’s father, and the young man speaks of the relief he feels that the dead man will “never know me for who I am.” Still, it seems unlikely that the surviving members of Dembe’s family would accept him as he truly is.
His older brother, after all, is Joe, the preacher. And while Dembe is close to his smart, fearless sister, Wummie (the excellent Latoya Edwards), there are aspects of his life that he knows would be dangerous to share with her.
His extended family includes his neighbors, the cheerfully officious Mama and her daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), who is hopefully regarded within this little clan as a future wife for Dembe. For mysterious reasons, exposed in a connect-the-dots revelation in the second act, Naome has stopped speaking altogether.
The plot shifts between scenes portraying Dembe’s evolving relationships with his family and with Sam. These are worlds that Dembe hopes to keep separate, and of course they are destined to collide.
It is perhaps fitting that the necessarily closeted Dembe should be a man of contradictions. But as written (and through no fault of Mr. Blankson-Wood’s), his emotional reversals seem unconvincingly abrupt, and evolutions of feeling that should develop over time are crammed into short stretches of dialogue.
Mr. Urch manages to pack in a wealth of social observation — about engrained sexism as well as homophobia — by indirection. But he also relies too much on bald declarations to define his characters, who are sometimes required to speak in the explosive shorthand of melodrama: “Loving you has ruined me.” And: “You and I both know you only wanted me as pastor to reclaim your respectability.”
The six performers never betray the suspicion that they might be incarnating less than fully formed characters, though. And they all do beautifully by the play’s best-written scenes, which find the anxiety of something unspoken in ostensibly comfortable exchanges.
Traditional Protestant hymns, sung by the cast, punctuate the production. (Justin Ellington did the original music and sound.) At first, they seem so comforting, so all-embracing, so warmly familiar. The singers’ voices remain on-key and harmonious throughout. By the end, though, you’ll hear a detectable sting in the sweetness.
The Rolling Stone
Tickets Through Aug. 25 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, lct.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.