WILLIAMSTOWN – “I know. Because I’m his mother. And mothers know.’’
The speaker is a middle-aged resident of Harlem named Bethea Solomon (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and what she is unshakably certain of is that her son Myles (LeRoy McClain) did not commit the crime that landed him in prison 13 years earlier.
That belief is even more wrenching because at the beginning of “Where Storms Are Born’’ — a drama by Harrison David Rivers now receiving its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, directed by Saheem Ali — it is not long after Myles has been found dead in his cell.
Bethea’s faith in her son’s goodness won’t let her rest. She has to know the truth behind Myles’s arrest and incarceration, a desire seemingly viewed as quixotic by her other son, 27-year-old Gideon (Christopher Livingston). When Bethea says that she is going to keep praying for justice “until God sees fit to answer,’’ Gideon retorts: “Do you ever think that maybe he already has? That maybe he just said no?’’
Offering radically different perspectives on the same situation by the two people most affected, that pungent exchange showcases a core strength of playwright Rivers: his ability to capture a truthful human moment while delivering a sudden flash of insight that illuminates the essence of a character.
If only he’d maintained a tighter focus on his story rather than let it be undermined by periods of drift. The sharpness of characterization and dialogue that Rivers demonstrates in “Where Storms Are Born’’ is not matched by a tautness of construction. There are times when we can feel him straining to detonate mini-explosions at the end of scenes.
Too much stage time is allotted to Gideon’s blunt-spoken friend, Worthy (played with comic gusto by Joniece Abbott-Pratt), and her on-again, off-again relationship with an unseen boyfriend. That emphasis on a minor character — crowd-pleasing though she is, to judge from the audience’s reaction at Saturday night’s performance — pulls focus from the central drama of Bethea and Gideon as they cope, in very different ways, with a combination of grief and unanswered questions that has driven a wedge into an otherwise close bond.
The web of other relationships in “Where Storms Are Born’’ is intricate and sometimes implausible. It strains credibility, for instance, that Luke (Luis Vega), the prison guard who discovered Myles’s body, would enter so smoothly into the life of the Solomon family. Also in the picture is Benton, (Joshua Boone, excellent), who formerly sold drugs with Myles, is now secretly having sex with Gideon, and is viewed with wary suspicion, even hostility, by Bethea.
Taylor, performing at Williamstown for a 10th season during her long and varied career (the playbill includes a charming photo of her in costume for a 1988 production of “Tom Jones’’), brings both vitality and poignancy to Bethea, wrenchingly conveying the depths of this mother’s agony. Livingston’s portrayal of Gideon, though, is a bit too enigmatic and elusive. Even granting that part of the play’s point is that Gideon has erected walls between himself and the rest of the world — he only visited Myles once in prison all those years — we still need to see more deeply into Gideon’s heart than we do.
We do see the brotherly bond between Gideon and Myles in periodic flashbacks of their conversations on the Solomons’ fire escape (the simple but effective set design is by Arnulfo Maldonado), and Bethea’s fierce protectiveness and worry when she visits Myles in prison.
Out of these relatively brief glimpses of Myles, McClain builds a compelling portrait of a restless and searching man who seems to be trying to figure himself out. McClain is an actor who invariably makes a vivid impression, from his memorable Boy Willie in 2011 at Yale Rep in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson’’ to his searing turn four years ago as Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun’’ at Huntington Theatre Company.
The resolution of “Where Storms Are Born,’’ when it arrives, is too facile. You’re left feeling that, in more than one sense, Myles deserved better.
WHERE STORMS ARE BORN
Play by Harrison David Rivers
Directed by Saheem Ali
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival at Nikos Stage, Williamstown. Through July 23. Tickets $58, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.