Any drama about brothers is probably going to have shades of Cain and Abel. That’s pretty much a given. It’s how the playwright deals with the theme, and how the actors deal with the material, that make the difference. Columbia’s NiA company has managed to take an overdone subject and theme and breathe beautiful life into them, making a lengthy performance totally absorbing for its entire three hours.

First performed in 2001, Topdog/Underdog is Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play that deals with brothers Lincoln and Booth and their respective depressing life situations. One can see the fate awaiting the men, given the names their drunken father laid on them “as a joke.” But it’s still heartbreaking when destiny gets fulfilled.

Booth (Christopher Harvey) is the younger brother who has taken in Lincoln (Darion McCloud, who also produces this production). Lincoln’s wife Cookie has kicked him out of their house, and now he has to fork over the majority of his salary to his jobless brother. Booth has constant troubles with his palpably absent girlfriend Grace. Lincoln works in whiteface at an arcade, playing Abe Lincoln in a game where customers pay to “assassinate” him. Lincoln, while trying to clean up his life (living up to the nickname of the man he portrays) and stay with a steady job, is by no means perfect. Booth has a talent for thievery and is trying to perfect the card hustle his brother abandoned so that he can bring in money (and he sees it as trying to make an honest living). Booth is so involved in perfecting his card-game persona and leaving behind the legacy his alcoholic father gave him, that he wants to change his name to Three-Card.

Booth is violent, cocky, and testy; Lincoln is introspective and escapist at times. “I just sit there and let my head go quiet,” he says.

Both parents abandoned them at separate times and their family history haunts them (both witnessed rather scarring events in their childhood).
Lincoln eventually displays some of Booth’s personality traits. He’s a bit meaner, and the cards take over again like a drug. The brothers become involved in a perpetual pissing contest.
Parks’ script contains major examples of poor forms of writing, yet amazingly they work well in the play. Moments of terribly on-the-nose exposition and sprawling monologues that in another play would sink, instead function as accepted conventions amidst the slightly off-kilter world of the play.

Topdog/Underdog is known for its oddness and heightened language blended with relatable situations. However, the play’s language isn’t heightened to the point of inaccessibility. The dialogue flows like regular modern speech, but there is a cadence and poeticism that underlies much of it, like the rhymes and the rhythm of the three card monte that the brothers practice. Often lines are repeated three times, mimicking the name and patterns of the card game. Lines foreshadow events to come or perfectly echo the mood and themes.

When asked why Lincoln had burned all of the clothes their father left behind, he replies “I got tired of lookin’ at them without him in ’em.” The beautiful, simple lines like that make the empathy so strong for these two brothers, who can be so cruel to each other and who take advantage of innocent people on a regular basis. The play is an excellent look into why people are the way they are — it’s rarely as straightforward as being a bad guy or a good guy.

Harvey and McCloud are outstanding in these complex roles. They have obviously done much work and reflection with their characters, portraying them as if the personalities were second nature. If it weren’t for their fantastic performances, the flaws in Parks’ script might just show through more than the wonderful portraits of loneliness, memory, and desperation.

Director Alex Smith handles the language and imagery well, without getting heavy-handed. There are moments of delicate balance — of comedic, sad, surreal, tragic, and dramatic. Any of the moments could easily go over the top, but Smith restrains them from boiling over, keeping them at just the right level and providing great tension. (He also has shaped great drunkenness in the performances, instead of the slurring, overblown, unrealistic acting usually seen.)

The lighting by Laura Anthony is nicely done — especially in a scene showing the lure of the cards as Lincoln gets back into the game, obviously smoother than his brother. The spot on him treats him like a magician. There is only one off instance, a lighting execution that both is obnoxious and appears purposeless: what feels like a solid two minutes of flashing lights while James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” plays. No characters are on stage, the flashes are in sync with no climactic moment, it just … happens. It’s the only completely out of place instance in the production.
NiA provides a top-quality production with excellent performances in a moving story that’s intense with symbolism, imagery, and theme (yet still fraught with comedy). It’s well worth the inexpensive price of the ticket to catch some great regional theatre.

Topdog/Underdog • Piccolo Spoleto’s Theatre Series • June 7, 8, & 9 at 7 p.m.; June 10 & 11 at 2 p.m • $12-$15 • PURE Theatre, The Cigar Factory, 701 E. Bay St. • 554-6060