Review: Subtle ‘Assurance’ leaves you thinking

Starving Artist Productions continues to support local playwrights who write local stories with the one-man drama “Blessed Assurance.” The 85-minute play was adapted by Steve Willis, an associate professor of theater and speech at Bennett College in Greensboro, from a novella by Rocky Mount native Allan Gurganus.

The one man is Jerry, and he has a confession to make. As he saunters from armchair to wooden rocker at his comfortable beach house, he recounts a job he landed long ago, when he was 19 years old: selling funeral insurance to poor black people.

“I knew it wasn’t right,” he admits. But he was a member of the lower class too, the son of a father who worked for the mills that “kept my parents poor and wheezing.” His boss tells him, “You’re going to feel like you’re stealing from them.”

His boss is right.

Jerry’s territory is Baby Africa, a neighborhood of shacks peopled primarily by women and dogs. His sales pitch takes advantage of the community’s belief in a big heavenly send-off. His customers pay a weekly premium, sometimes for decades. The catch: Miss two payments, and the policy is forfeited. Of course, people miss their payments.

This is a quiet, satisfying play. James K. Flynn imbues Jerry with a delicate balance of remorse, insight and wisdom. Flynn’s revelation of his story is conveyed with a touch of wonder; it’s as if, in the telling, he’s sparked new realizations that will continue to inform his character. His mellifluous North Carolina accent is a perfect complement to the material.

“Blessed Assurance” is a play where less is more, which is reflected both in the understated performance and minimal stage effects. Caroline Bowers outfits Jerry in topsiders and khakis, the uniform of a successful retiree. Tony Wright’s lighting directs the character from a chair to a bottle of Jack Daniels to a delicate cup of tea.

Director Nathan Rouse has the acumen to let the actor own the play. There are no sudden movements, no distractions, just one man trying to make sense of a phase of his life that was crucial to his character. This is a rich vignette that subtly addresses class, race and poverty. It’s perfect fodder for dinner conversation after you see it.