at ETA Creative Arts Foundation

When an actress of Trazana Beverley’s stature comes to town, theater lovers from both sides of the footlights should make seeing her a priority. Winner of the Tony Award for her performance on Broadway in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and star of important regional theater productions ranging from Boesman and Lena at Evanston’s Northlight Theatre to Liviu Ciulei’s The Bacchae at the Guthrie in Minneapolis to Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman at Lincoln Center, Beverley is a brilliant stage technician with a commanding yet generous presence; to watch her work, especially in a small theater like ETA Creative Arts Foundation, is a little like attending a master class in performance–and a notably accessible and affordable master class at that, considering ETA’s top ticket price is only $10.

This holds true even if, as in this case, you don’t find the show particularly convincing. The Spirit Moves was written by Beverley as a showcase for herself; though effective as a display of theatrical virtuosity, its substance doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

On the surface, the play (directed by A. Dean Irby) is an autobiographical account of a woman’s journey through her own personal valley of sorrows, and of the role of her Christian faith in guiding her down her difficult road. There’s nothing in the script or program materials to indicate whether this is really Beverley’s story or simply one she created from her own imagination and/or observations; in any case, its elements include the loss of a beloved, devoutly religious grandmother, a period of aspiration as an actress, a fierce bout with emotional depression and a struggle to survive life in a mental institution, and a troubled relationship with a teenage girl who succumbs to the deadly temptations of drugs. This last situation dominates the second half of the play, as the unnamed woman whom Beverley portrays tries vainly to keep the child from giving in to the wicked influences all about her; the intensity of these efforts proves destructive, as the girl rebels against the woman and heads straight into the arms of a needle-wielding pimp.

The show ends with the woman seeking solace in the inspiration of her dead grandmother’s spirituality–hopefully leaving a Bible with the dead girl’s mother, an alcoholic, and then launching into a dramatically sung gospel hymn.

Two acts’ worth of this intended inspirational story telling gives Beverley plenty of opportunity to strut her professional stuff, and she takes full advantage. Clad in an androgynous jumpsuit, and aided a little by some accessories but mainly by her own formidably honed talent, she leaps in and out of a series of impeccably sketched characterizations–from the enormously warm and strong grandmother, strutting down the street to church gripping her little granddaughter’s hand, to a hopped-up, leather-jacketed gang banger biting the dust under a barrage of police bullets; from a Thorazine zombie nodding out in a mental ward to an intimidating white psychiatrist at once resisting and approving of her patient’s feistiness; from the little girl Dee-Dee, bursting with energy and anger as she defies her guardian’s critical eye, to the guardian herself–the woman in whose memory this play takes place, struggling with confusion and sorrow over the child whose death she helped bring about.

These and smaller, more fleeting roles are brought to life through the actress’s remarkable blend of precision and energy. Whether she’s leaping about the stage in an African tribal dance or its high-tech rock successor (to the accompaniment of a live band led by Ernest McCarty) or sitting in an old rocking chair quoting scripture, Beverley vibrates with focused vitality, portraying not just a character but the other person that character is talking to. This is the show’s greatest strength (one that was missing from, for instance, Lily Tomlin’s impressive series of solo turns in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe), the sense of not just the person speaking but the unseen person being spoken to–and it’s crucial in these vignettes, whose common theme is human connection.

Unfortunately, that connection is missing when Beverley gets wrapped up in the religiosity that dominates the show’s last half. Having so effectively suggested specific people with specific problems, Beverley takes refuge in the all-encompassing vagueness of preachy platitudes about “perfect love which is from God.” These words sound good, especially spoken in Beverley’s mellifluous and musical voice–and especially when she sings them, as she does in several spirituals, with rapturous dramatic fire. But they don’t seem to have helped Dee-Dee much, or the thousands of kids like her in real life who have tuned out churchy cliches, no matter how well spoken or powerfully sung. The passion and power Trazana Beverley brings to her audience makes the useless fluff in her script all the more infuriating.