“What sort of man are you?” The aged Abasiama asks that question, repeatedly, of Azell, the African-American repairman who’s come, at the behest of her children, to replace her worn-out floors.
It turns out he’s a human sort of man.
This is the Magic Theatre world premiere (in coordination with American Conservatory Theater) of “In Old Age,” the fifth play in Mfoniso Udofia’s nine-play cycle following several generations of the Ufot family; Abasiama, the matriarch, first arrived in the United States as a student from Nigeria in an arranged marriage (as depicted in “Sojourners” a few years ago at the Magic).
When her husband returned to Nigeria, she married Disciple (“runboyrun,” also at the Magic, zeroed in on that character).
Most recently, we saw her with her two adult daughters and learned that Disciple had dementia (“Her Portmanteau” at ACT).
Now she is living alone in a decrepit New England house that appears to be haunted—ominous knocking noises, which only she can hear, persist—presumably by the deceased Disciple, whose stuff is still stored in the basement, or actually by the house itself.
At first Abasiama is suspicious of the workman, and hostile, while the initially jovial Azell soon finds himself facing his own demons.
Yet over the course of several workdays together, a deep, mystical connection between them emerges.
But of the three plays in the cycle that we’ve seen locally so far, this one seems the weakest.
Partly that’s due to director Victor Malana Maog’s production, in which Nancy Moricette as Abasiama is in a towering, monotonous and deafening rage for too much of the play, her dialogue obscured by an almost impenetrably thick Nigerian accent.
By the time she settles down, it’s hard to care about her any more.
And part of the problem is the play itself, in which the way that the two lost souls finally communicate, meant to be spiritual, seems hokey.
Still, the performance of Steven Anthony Jones as Azell—who, like Abasiama, is a transplant, having come from the South—is so riveting, and his character, as written, so down-to-earth and engaging, that the play seems much more about him than about her. There’s an inherent sweetness to Jones that is inherent in every role I’ve ever seen him play and which results, as it does here, in beautifully complex, vulnerable characters.
This love story should be a shared one, but Azell’s the one who draws you in.
In Old Age
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Fort Mason, Building D, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes April 21
Tickets: $15 to $75
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org