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The Firehouse fills in the missing piece of Edward Albee's "The Death of Bessie Smith."

Waiting for Bessie

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Would the "Mona Lisa" be a masterpiece without that smile? Would "The Wizard of Oz" be a classic without the Wicked Witch? Some works of art are simply unimaginable without a certain key element.

Edward Albee wrote "The Death of Bessie Smith" without that element, namely Smith herself. The African-American blues singer, who was immensely popular in the '20s, never appears in Albee's play, and he only includes the smallest smidgen of background on her. Without even a shadow of her presence, this one-act play could be about any black woman who dies after a car accident when she is turned away from a white hospital. And perhaps that is Albee's point.

But what an inspired addition Director Bill Patton has made in the Firehouse Theatre Project's production of the play. Before Albee's one-act begins, a half-hour long performance piece called "Empress" provides a short slice of history on Smith, including several of her songs forcefully rendered by Desiree Roots. Written and narrated by Tim Ireland with silky-smooth piano accompaniment by Sonny Baharloo, the evocative chronicle captures the essence of Smith, conjuring up her powerful and iconoclastic spirit.

After this introduction, we are transported to a hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where a bossy, manipulative nurse (Molly Pohlig) holds court. This unnamed nurse represents every horrible thing a Southern woman could stand for: She's a racist, a tease and a disrespectful daughter from a failed noble family. She bullies a black orderly (Rodney Choice), then badgers her boyfriend, a hospital intern (Robbie Wilson). When a frantic Jack (Tony Cosby) barges in, leaving the mortally wounded Smith offstage in his car, it serves mostly as a punctuation mark for the hospital's internal drama.

Only with Roots' voice and Ireland's words echoing in your head does this angry story have any resonance. The tragedy of Smith's death only hits home when she is remembered as a person and not just as a symbol of racial intolerance. Ireland's introduction provides the vital third dimension for what would otherwise be a flat experience.

Patton should be applauded for marrying "Empress" with "The Death of Bessie Smith" and for gambling on Richmond newcomer Pohlig as the black heart at the core of this drama. The slight actress is a wonder of minimalism, her placidity making her seem that much more malevolent. Cosby is also a revelation here. His Jack acts as an expressive surrogate for Smith, starting out hopeful for Smith's future and ending up crushed by her tragedy. (Though why Cosby has to deliver half of his principal monologue in semidarkness is a question I would pose to Patton and lighting designer Cassandra White.)

Though this is one of Albee's first plays, his profound ability to create biting and literate dialogue is already evident. Pohlig, Choice and Winston all articulate this repartee well. But, ultimately, it may be the robust vocals of Roots that stick with you the longest after this show is over; her "St. Louis Blues" serves as a melancholy coda to the performance. With this production, the Firehouse has taken the flawed work of a genius and built it into a true

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