WATERTOWN — Sometimes a writer’s early work stands as an embryonic version of what will come later, offering a glimpse — though you may have to squint a bit to see it — at the style, sensibility, and subject matter that will define her career when she really hits her stride.
That’s the case with Lydia R. Diamond’s “The Gift Horse,’’ now receiving its Boston-area premiere at New Repertory Theatre, directed by Jim Petosa.
“The Gift Horse’’ was first staged 15 years ago, before Diamond fully established herself as a topnotch dramatist with plays like “Voyeurs de Venus,’’ “The Bluest Eye,’’ “Harriet Jacobs,’’ “Stick Fly,’’ and “Smart People.’’ Diamond considered revising “The Gift Horse’’ for the New Rep production but ultimately decided to leave her original text intact, flaws and all.
What are those flaws? Well, “The Gift Horse’’ is self-consciously literary in the way that early efforts often are. It’s overstuffed and a bit unwieldy, veering all over the place tonally, from glib, breezy comedy to grim-as-it-gets drama. At times, the play even tips over into melodrama, with whiffs of sensationalism that brought a few gasps from the opening-night audience.
But the play also features some of what we now know to be Diamond’s trademark strengths: her wry wit, her humane worldview, the way she can generate electricity within a scene, her awareness that race is a crucial dimension of contemporary American drama, and her gift for creating characters who win you to their side, despite or maybe because of their contradictory qualities.
In “The Gift Horse,’’ that adds up to a roomy showcase for an actress who deserves one and knows what to do with it: Obehi Janice. She delivers an empathetic, wholly committed performance as a teacher and artist named Ruth, an unfinished woman in whom, thanks to Janice, we become willing to make an emotional investment.
As “The Gift Horse’’ unfolds from the mid-1980s to the present, Janice builds a complex and absorbing portrait of Ruth, a voluble, passionate, and take-charge figure who appears, from the outside, to have no trouble expressing herself. While in college, Ruth instigates what will prove to be a lifelong friendship with Ernesto (Alejandro Simoes), who is gay.
Simoes’s performance is tentative in the early going, though that could partly stem from the fact that for a while “The Gift Horse’’ confines Ernesto to the role he describes as “one of those gay guys in the movies, you know, the one whose sole purpose in life is to comfort the female protagonist.’’ But Ernesto gets a story line, and a boyfriend, of his own: Bill, a smooth and handsome charmer played by the versatile and ubiquitous Lewis D. Wheeler.
Ruth, however, seems blocked when it comes to romantic commitment. She goes to see Brian, a psychologist played with deft understatement by Maurice Emmanuel Parent (also known for versatility and ubiquity). With Brian’s help, Ruth struggles to break free from the lingering effects of a horrific, long-ago trauma. It’s certainly not Diamond’s fault that the nature of that trauma has so often been used as plot device in the years since “The Gift Horse’’ premiered, but it does bring the play into overly familiar territory.
Director Petosa, no doubt mindful that clarity can be a casualty of lyricism, demonstrates finesse as he steers “The Gift Horse’’ through its multiple shifts in time and perspective. Jon Savage has devised an impressionistic gem of a set that evokes a cityscape by means of jigsaw-puzzle-like pieces that hang above the stage — a fitting image for what is a memory play of sorts.
Speaking of which: There’s a mysterious figure on the stage throughout “The Gift Horse,’’ a cellist named Jordan, played with ethereal grace by Cloteal L. Horne. Jordan stands apart from the main action, delivering periodic monologues about the challenges of love and art. It’s a meta-theatrical conceit that seems contrived, but Jordan’s presence in Diamond’s play is eventually more than justified.
THE GIFT HORSE
Play by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through May 14. Tickets $30-$59, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.