GLOUCESTER — What a pleasure it is to watch Cheryl D. Singleton act.
Her technique is so subtle it hardly seems like technique at all. When underplaying is called for, this veteran Boston actress can downshift to a state of near-stillness that nonetheless speaks volumes. When a play requires Singleton to take over a scene, she asserts her presence with a majestic force that rattles the rafters.
Singleton deploys those gifts to the fullest as the outwardly authoritative but wounded Mama in Zora Howard’s powerful, if uneven, “Stew,” now at Gloucester Stage Company under the sensitive direction of Rosalind Bevan.
A finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama two years ago, “Stew” builds toward a shattering conclusion but spins its wheels a bit too much on the journey to get there, especially considering that the play’s runtime is only 90 minutes.
Mama’s fastidiousness is evident in her bright, spotless, everything-in-its-place kitchen (designed by Jenna McFarland Lord), where three generations of a Black family have assembled in Mount Vernon, N.Y. They are preparing a large meal that occurs once a year, but whose exact reason for being goes unspecified.
The gathering includes Mama’s two daughters: thirtysomething Lillian (Breezy Leigh), who seems to have something burdensome on her mind (though Leigh proves to have a wonderful laugh when something strikes Lillian as funny); and restless, rebellious, 17-year-old Nelly (Janelle Grace). Nelly believes she has found true love and is eager for the freedom she thinks adulthood will bring; Grace conveys the avidity of Nelly’s desire for a larger life than the ones she has seen the women in her family live.
Then there is Lillian’s preteen daughter, Lil’ Mama, a whirlwind of impish energy as played by Sadiyah Dyce Janai Stephens. Unseen though frequently referred to is Lillian’s teenage son, Junior. Indeed, within the opening scene, Lillian, Nelly, and Lil’ Mama all separately ask Mama the same question: “Where’s Junior?”
It’s a question that seems innocuous until it isn’t. Periodically, as the meal preparation goes on, the phone rings, a joltingly loud, nerve-jangling burst of aural lightning. (Kudos to sound designer Aubrey Dube, and also to lighting designer Kat C. Zhou, who deftly establishes the shifts from realism to an entirely different state.)
Lillian is worried that Mama seems to be suffering some cognitive slippage — a notion that Mama blisteringly rejects. Yet “Stew” operates in a mostly comic vein at first. While they peel carrots, blanch beans, wash lettuce, and bicker, the cast expertly executes the give-and-take.
There’s a certain circularity to their conversation; playwright Howard has a talent for capturing how families talk, and how sorting through shared history can open up fierce disagreements about cause and effect. Though a couple of secrets do spill out along the way, “Stew” would benefit from a bit more event.
Lil’ Mama is preparing to audition for the part of Queen Elizabeth in a school production of “Richard III.” This prompts Nelly to say: “Wait, wait, wait, wait, I know! Someone wants to be king? And he’ll do anything in his power to get it?” To which Lillian offers a choice bit of sardonic commentary on Shakespeare: “That’s all of ‘em.”
News of her granddaughter’s foray into Shakespeare piques Mama’s interest; she was, she reminds the rest of the family, the founder of the Mount Vernon High Dramatic League. In a spellbinding sequence, Mama recites a lengthy passage from “Richard III.” It is focused on violence, loss, and grief, and it’s clear that Mama doesn’t need Shakespeare to teach her about that.
Play by Zora Howard. Directed by Rosalind Bevan. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester. Through July 23. Tickets start at $59. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com