Playboy of the West Indies, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists. Mustapha Matura’s Caribbean version of J.M. Synge’s 1907 The Playboy of the Western World is also a coming-of-age comedy: fugitive Ken stumbles into a 50s Trinidad rum shop saying he’s killed his father with a cutlass, impressing the locals with his gift for gab the way Synge’s Christie Mahon did the Aran Islanders. Most taken is Peggy: the tart-tongued barkeep’s daughter falls for this poetic, athletic stranger, and Ken grows confident beyond his dreams. Though finally exposed, he learns a lesson in independence worth more than any false romance.
Matura’s heartfelt homage hews close to its wonderful source, varying only the local gossip and the love fantasies (catching crabs by moonlight is an erotic pursuit). This hot-blooded, good-natured staging by Chuck Smith–who appeared in the play’s 1988 U.S. premiere at Court Theatre–positively dances, its sole drawbacks uneven accents (which make the island patois heavy going) and a sometimes erratic pace. Ann Joseph is a bit ripe for the role of Peggy but moves from wariness to fascination to adoration with conviction. It’s hard to believe that the sensuous Reginald Nelson as Ken has never before discovered his power to please, yet he makes the character’s sudden entry into manhood persuasive. Offering terrific comic support are Ernest Perry Jr. (another veteran of the Court production) and Charles Michael Moore as rascally fathers, TaRon Patton as a wily widow, and Derrick Sanders as Peggy’s mousy fiance.