As Much As You Can
Also see Bill's review of Annie
On paper, it wouldn't seem so, however. The plot summary reads pretty much like a schlocky TV weeper: a young African-American New Yorker (Kevane La'Marr Coleman), who is sort-of-but-not-really "out" to his family, decides to bring his Swedish boyfriend (Brian Mackey) to the Chicago wedding of his younger brother (Patrick Kelly). Complications ensue, mostly in the form of his big sister (Ida L. Rhem), a devoutly religious woman who prays daily for her brother to find the "true" way.
Chicago playwright Paul Oakley Stovall manages to make this predictable (yes, everything you expect to happen pretty much does) plotline fresh, in three ways. First, instead of being a weeper, the play is mostly a comedy, and a downright funny one at that. Second, Mr. Stovall introduces two other characters to keep things interesting: a mouthy, snap-snap-snap lesbian (Melissa Coleman Reed) and a stepsister (Leticia Martinez) who is the product of a liaison between the family's patriarch and a white woman. Third, the driving force in the play is the love the family members feel for one another, not the resentments they hold against each other, and that love makes all the difference in how their conflicts eventually play out.
The production, as directed by Antonio T. J. Johnson, manages to be perfect for Diversionary's very wide but not very deep stage. Stage right hosts the set for the family home, while stage left is shifted to accommodate the multiple other locations where scenes occur. Mr. Johnson has melded his cast into a tight ensemble, though Ms. Martinez (who is making her acting debut) could benefit from shrieking less, and Mr. Mackey (a Diversionary veteran) could benefit from making his suggestion of a Swedish accent less on-again-off-again.
Despite the production's association with the Black Ensemble Theatre, there were very few African Americans in the audience at the performance I saw. I hope that participation by the African-American community increases during the play's run, as it presents an important message in a very entertaining manner.
As Much As You Can, a collaboration of San Diego's Diversionary Theatre and the Black Ensemble Theatre, RUNS through January 25, 2009, at the Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, in San Diego. Box Office: 619-220-0097, or online at Diversionary's Ticket Site.
Directed by Antonio T. J. Johnson. Set Design by Jane Lamotte, Costume Design by Joan Hanselman-Wong, Lighting Design by Chris Renda, Sound Design by Jason Connors, Property Designer & Stage Manager: Annie M. Goodale. With Ida L. Rhem, Kevane La'Marr Coleman, Melissa Coleman Reed, Brian Mackey, Patrick Kelly, and Leticia Martinez.