There’s also the fun of spotting — in a work that feels, improbable as it sounds, like a cousin to Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” — glimmers of plays to come in Nottage’s oeuvre. Ernestine’s silver-screen fantasies bring to mind the satire “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (2011), about a trailblazing Black actress in Golden Age Hollywood. And Ernestine’s dressmaker’s dummy, draped with her graduation gown in progress, prefigures “Intimate Apparel” (2003).
That dress, prim and white with lace at the neckline, is as much an emblem of achievement and possibility as Lily’s elegant tailored skirt suit — though Lily’s outfit also serves as an armor of bravado over dented dreams. (Costumes are by Johanna Pan.) A revolutionary at heart, and a life-altering inspiration to Ernestine, Lily is a determined counterpoint to the version of Black womanhood that the cautious Godfrey tries to instill in his daughters: chaste, sober, grateful and with only the tamest of ambitions.
Lily, alas, doesn’t have the necessary resonance in this production. There’s a hollowness to Martin’s interpretation that unbalances the otherwise strong ensemble and the dynamics of the Crump household, which Godfrey throws into turmoil when he abruptly remarries.
Like Father Divine, he chooses a white woman — Gerte (Natalia Payne, excellent), who lived through the war in her native Germany. Their first meeting, by chance, on the subway, is intensely fraught: she, lost, hungry and alone; he, terrified to engage because, as he has told his daughters more than once, “I don’t want to wind up like them Scottsboro boys.”
Such are the clamorous forces shaping Ernestine’s coming-of-age. In the middle of the 20th century, in a corner of the big city, she’s figuring out who she wants to be.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy
Through April 1 at Theater Row, Manhattan; keencompany.org. Running time: 2 hours.