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STAR LEDGER: ‘Gem of the Ocean’ is a celebration of spirit, terrific August Wilson adaptation on N.J. stage

“So live!”

Such is the toast given by Eli in August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” as he raises a glass and exhorts his friends and community to seize the vibrancy of life in order to earn a peaceful rest whenever death should come. “You got a duty to life,” Aunt Ester says to Citizen Barlow, the lost soul who has come to her for spiritual rescue, “So live, Mr. Citizen! Live!”

This celebration of the spirit and urgency of life is a fitting toast to the gorgeous production of “Gem of the Ocean” now running at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. Under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, this show is vibrant, passionate, and wholly affecting. It captures the spirit of Wilson’s most mystical play, and honors the many souls of Black Americans that swirl in and around the events of Aunt Ester’s house at 1839 Wylie Avenue.

Set in 1904, “Gem of the Ocean” is the earliest in history of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle”: A series of ten plays, each exploring Black American life in a different decade of the twentieth century. Although a historical foundation, “Gem” is the penultimate play Wilson wrote in the cycle (it premiered in 2003, twenty years after “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), penned with a specific view to encapsulating the cycle’s most resonate themes. As a result, the play is a rich tapestry and valuable distillation of Wilson’s essence.

Citizen Barlow (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is in psychological turmoil, so the people tell him to go see Aunt Ester (Stephanie Berry) to get his soul washed. Aunt Ester will eventually guide him on a harrowing journey to confront his demons, but Citizen must first learn the rhythms of 1839 Wylie, a microcosm of Black Pittsburgh populated variously by Eli (Brian D. Coats) and Solly Two Kings (James A. Williams), former conductors of the Underground Railroad whose senses of justice refuse to fade with age, Black Mary (Crystal A. Dickinson), Aunt Ester’s protégé who is gradually finding her own voice, Rutherford Selig (Bill Irwin), the kind white itinerate peddler, and the menacing Ceasar Wilks (Brandon J. Dirden), Black Mary’s brother who has made himself into a harsh enforcer of the penal law and capitalistic exploiter of poor Blacks trying to make a life for themselves in world where freedom is still nascent.

The beating heart of this show is Berry’s profound and gripping Aunt Ester. The character is soul mother to Wilson’s entire cycle (say her full name quickly: sounds like ancestor, doesn’t it?) and bears a heavy burden of guidance and support. Berry is skillful and nuanced in her Aunt Ester, starting the play as what could be any kindly elderly lady in the community, but slowly revealing the full depth of Aunt Ester’s mysticism. As Berry’s audience, we are like Citizen Barlow, gradually realizing the profound role that Aunt Ester plays for those in her orbit.

Around Berry is a collection of excellent performances. Williams’s Solly is warm and righteous. Dirden’s Ceasar is un-blinkered in his arrogance. Coats’s Eli is an essential calming presence. Irwin gives Selig a humble pride. Dickinson celebrates Black Mary’s maturation. And Williams takes Citizen on an arresting journey from bewilderment to purpose. Sonnenberg directs with confidence and insight, giving us a “Gem” at once reverent of Wilson’s achievement and attuned to why the work remains so continuously vital.

Ultimately, the beauty and triumph of this production should come as little surprise in Red Bank. “Gem of the Ocean” is number seven in Two River Theater’s project of staging all ten plays in Wilson’s “American Century Cycle.” Since that work started with 2012′s production of “Jitney,” each show has excelled individually, and the collective project has thrived, in part because of the creative community it continues to foster. Artists like Dickinson, Dirden, Coats, and Williams have been regular contributors, and new faces join the fold with each production. All that remains after “Gem” are “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”: Each a monument of the American stage. It is an exciting and unique opportunity for New Jersey audiences to travel this journey along with the team at Two River.

So live!

“Gem of the Ocean”

Two River Theater Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank

Tickets: available online ( Running through June 30.