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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Immediate Family
Goodman Theatre

Phillip James Brannon, Cynda Williams, Shanésia Davis, J. Nicole Brooks and
Patrick Sarb

With a trio of active Broadway producers and direction by Broadway and TV star Phylicia Rashad, this new play by Paul Oakley Stovall has the firepower to support its announced hopes for a Broadway run. And Stovall couldn't ask for better performances, surer direction or a more handsome set to put his play across to audiences. The thing is, even if the production has the polish and funding ready to move to the big time of commercial New York theater, the script is in more like workshop shape. Oakley's family drama of adult and orphaned African-American siblings in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood has much to commend it—freshly original characters, a fascinating milieu and an honest and touching concern for its people and its issues—but it over ambitiously tries to pack too many ideas into a 90-minute intermissionless play.

Two days before the wedding of younger brother Tony, the Bryant family assembles at the Bryants' elegant homestead in the upper-middle class neighborhood bordering the University of Chicago. The relationships and history of this family are revealed slowly—way too slowly for my liking, so before I reveal some of them here, I'll contend that what I'm about to give is not a spoiler but its opposite. (What would that be called? An improver?) The home is now occupied by the eldest Bryant daughter, Evy, a history teacher who seems to have been a surrogate mother of the family and sternly tries to retain that role. Their father, who died two years earlier, sired a daughter out of wedlock—the artist Ronnie, who arrives from Europe as an invited, though not universally welcomed guest. The other partially estranged sibling to arrive is brother Jesse Jr., a gay man now living in Minneapolis who is not out to his family but is bringing along his white Swedish partner under the guise of a "friend" who will shoot the wedding photography for free.

It's Jesse's coming-out that is the presumed and marketed central conflict of the play, but Stovall gives each of the Bryants (and the Swedish lover) some baggage and stage time to deal with it. It's not necessary to reveal all the characters' secrets here, but they include black homophobia, black-against-white racism, fear of commitment, marital failures, under-achievement, parental child abuse, Christian fundamentalism and lesbianism. Taken individually, the characters and their issues are complex and original enough to earn our attention. Evy, a teacher working on an African-American history lesson for her class, is clearly an intellectual, but with a fundamentalist set of beliefs that curiously would have her exclude a gay figure like Bayard Rustin from that curriculum. Shanésia Davis gives Evy a convincing harshness and underlying sadness, playing her character's contradictions with complete confidence even in the face of the playwright's failure to explain them. The other Bryant whose journey is most significant is Jesse, and Phillip James Brannon makes his commitment anxiety and unresolved family pain palpable.

As Jesse and Evy come to their separate epiphanies, we're engaged and believe their emotional journeys enough that the conclusion is ultimately satisfying even if the play in total is frustratingly overstuffed. The key to both Jesse and Evy's growth is Jesse's lover, Kristian. Kristian has a steadiness and calmness in the face of Bryant family histrionics that leads Evy to see commonality with people she had rejected. Kristian is a variation on the traditional outsider/antagonist of drama. His role in bringing change to the Bryants is unexpected, given that he's the only white character in this African-American themed play, even if it does play on stereotypes of Nordic stoicism vs. African-American expressiveness. Patrick Sarb plays Kristian with a quiet sensitivity that avoids making the character quite as saintly as Stovall has written him.

Surrounding those three most in crisis are two siblings and a lesbian neighbor. Younger brother Tony, who's cooler about Jesse being gay than he is about Kristian being white, is played with an amusingly regular guy demeanor by Kamal Angelo Bolden. Film and TV actress Cynda Williams is a charismatic Ronnie, the biracial half-sister of the clan. Though Stovall makes her confusingly arrogant upon her entrance, she becomes a sympathetic character thereafter, and Williams captures Ronnie's combination of self-confidence with a real hunger for connecting with this half of her family. J. Nicole Brooks is physical and funny as Nina, the lesbian next door who was Jesse Jr.'s pal and confidant during their teen years. Is it just a bit ironic, though, that we now have a lesbian as the funny but harmless neighbor instead of the old stereotype of the sexless funny fat girl or older gay man? Not exactly—Brooks' Nina is in no way sexless, but her sexuality is more tolerated by Evy since Nina is not a member of the family.

Given Ms. Rashad's history as TV mother of the Huxtables—the upscale affluent African-American family of "The Cosby Show"—comparisons of this play to the sitcom genre are inevitable. Rashad's direction has that sort of pacing and she gets laughs even in places that don't really deserve it, as when Stovall relies too heavily on obvious puns on words like "partner" and "straight" and the different meanings they have in a gay context. The gorgeous and realistic set by John Iacovelli has a sitcom look to it as well, even with the sort of three side-by-side settings you might find in a sitcom's TV studio, and Joshua Horvath's incidental music covering scene changes feel for all the world like something from "Golden Girls" in places. It all fits with the obvious efforts for a commercial product, from the short 90-minute length, catchy title and comic-looking logo. Nothing wrong with that, but the play is going to need its humor punched up to deliver on that promise.

Stovall is in better shape right now with his believable and appealing characters than with the jokes, but I would suggest he make their relationships clear much sooner—it was halfway through the play before I understood who was marrying whom or who the heck Ronnie was and why her attendance was such a big deal. More importantly, though, Stovall and his producers have a choice to make: either give the writer the leeway to expand on the many themes peppered throughout the script and make the piece into a longer play, or edit down the themes and ideas and use the space for some funnier jokes and just tighten it overall. I'd rather see the former approach. I'd like to know more about Evy and how her academic mind reconciles with her fundamentalist thinking, or to learn how Ronnie grew from an impoverished illegitimate biracial child into an international artist, and finally to understand how Jesse Jr. failed to use his education at Howard University into something more lucrative than waiting tables. Also, the world of upper-middle class African-Americans is one we don't see much in the arts and I would have liked this play to show even more of it.

Coincidentally, Immediate Family is playing just down the hall at the Goodman from the nearly five-hour The Iceman Cometh, and with Family's curtain one-hour later than Iceman's, Family lets out during Iceman's second intermission and halfway point. Iceman is the hottest ticket in town, so there's evidence that people will sit for longer than 90-minutes to watch a good play (though in honesty, the Iceman crowd looked a little weary on that Friday night). And in evoking Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, I'm not suggesting there's a Long Day's Journey Into Night waiting to get out of Immediate Family, but Stovall's ideas can sustain a longer show than the one they have together right now.

Immediate Family will be performed in the Goodman's Owen Theatre through August 5, 2012. For ticket information, visit the Goodman Box Office at 170 N. Dearborn, or call 312-443-3800.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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