The “lady” of the title in Georgia State University professor and playwright Shirlene Holmes’ 1997 “A Lady and a Woman” is Miss Flora, an innkeeper and healer in the mid-1890s South.
As portrayed by the gifted Velina Brown in Theatre Rhinoceros’ local premiere, Miss Flora is regal, lonely, self-assured, devoutly Christian and full of yearning.
When she says, initially, “I don’t trust nobody on first sight,” you believe her — so it’s wonderful to see her let her guard down as the two-person, two-act play continues.
Miss Flora is issuing that warning to the “woman” in question: a scruffy, butch-looking new guest at the inn, the good-natured Biddie, played with great, swaggering charm by Dawn L. Troupe.
Despite her religious convictions, Miss Flora is drawn to the newcomer, and (no spoiler here) they tumble into bed remarkably quickly in terms of stage time.
Both women have suffered deeply in the past, as we learn from the stories they tell each other. Miss Flora has what she considers a disfiguring scar on her face to prove it. However, now that they’ve found love, it’s pretty smooth sailing ahead.
And although the smooth sailing makes for a play that drifts along likably enough as a slice of a very unusual life given the era, the lack of waves — the struggles and obstacles that would seem inevitable under the circumstances — feels like an oddly missing plot element.
There are a few blips in this unquestionably affecting love story. Miss Flora initially has some qualms. “I’m worried about my spirit,” she confesses, after their first night together.
There is brief mention of askance and knowing glances from the neighbors.
And in one scene, Biddie goes worrisomely macho, thinking a neighbor has eyes for Miss Flora. I’m not your possession, Flora warns Biddie, lovingly but firmly.
What works best is the palpable connection between the women under John Fisher’s sensitive direction — that, and Holmes’ lyrical yet natural-sounding dialogue, captured by the actors with such ease and finesse.
The many short scenes are glued together by the two women singing gospels, spirituals and the like, and their gorgeous, ringing voices make for a special pleasure.
Toward play’s end, Miss Flora returns home from assisting at a very difficult birth, her apron splashed with blood, and Brown’s quiet, exhausted description of the event is truly transcendent.
A Lady and a Woman
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes March 24
Tickets: $15 to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.therhino.org