Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Rivers' new play is that rare creation not based on a book, film, historical event, biography, or memoir. He was inspired in 2018 after coming across a New York Times piece on Black infant and maternal mortality rates and the enormous disparity between Black and white patient outcomes. Despite having some of the most advanced and acclaimed medical facilities in the world (including Mayo Clinic, just ninety miles down the road from Penumbra), the lack of access to health care in low-income communities of color, and the prevalence of comorbidities in those communities place the United States near the bottom among the wealthiest nations. Floored by this knowledge, Rivers initiated a conversation with Sarah Bellamy, president and CEO of Penumbra, which gestated through a development phase, a COVID delay and at last has given birth to Weathering.
Weathering is far from a screed railing against discriminatory practices, systemic racism, and intolerable discrepancies, although it does find its place to make those points in a dramatically appropriate context. The play is the story of a woman torn asunder after the stillbirth of a daughter she and her husband were ecstatically awaiting. The loss is devastating to husband Nathan (JuCoby Johnson) and wife Lena (Vinecia Coleman) alike, though the story is seen through Lena's perspective, and indeed she carries an additional burden, not only grieving a child but also coping with the feelings of being tragically let down by her own body. Lena has had it with people telling her how sorry they are, bringing flowers when they don't know what else to do, and filling silences with their condolences, questioning what is a condolence, anyway? And yet, she feels abandoned, utterly alone, and without hope.
Lena has retreated from the world, isolated in her spacious, updated kitchen (teal and pewter, large island counter, recessed lighting, stainless fridge–superb work from set designer Chelsea Masteller Warren) with occasional night forays into the backyard to stare helplessly at the stars. Nathan has returned to work, which provides cover for him to avoid communicating directly with Lena about their shared tragedy. Despite the deep sorrow surrounding this story, it most often takes the form of a comedy, with a passel of woman appearing–sometimes magically–in Lena's kitchen, each with a different role in Lena's life, different ways of offering her comfort, and in some cases of driving her nuts.
We meet Lena's overbearing mother (Greta Oglesby), her quick-witted sister Nicco (Ashwanti Sakina Ford), her wine-toting best friend Jo (Oyeman Ehikhamhen), a well-meaning but ditzy neighbor named Turtle (Ashe Jaafaru), and a casserole-bearing church lady (Austene Van), whose name–Margaret Wilson–and southern drawl bespeak an old-school point of view. First one at a time, then in pairs and eventually as a crowd, they chip away at Lena's protective layer of ice and form a web of nurturance, understanding, and cathartic release. Lena's turn-of-the-corner is abetted by a supernatural occurrence, yet the calm with which these women carry on offers the appearance of lives lived, expecting forces beyond understanding to be regular visitors to their days.
Each of these characters emerges as an authentic human being, the result of smart and authentic dialogue Rivers has written for them, Colette Robert's fluid direction that never drop a beat, and the complete commitment of these actors. As Lena, Coleman (a formidable Lorraine Hansberry in Pillsbury's Jimmy & Lorraine: A Musing a few seasons back) cements her stature as an actor to seek out. Lena's pain is visible in her face and posture as she contends with the burden of dealing with both her own grief and these would-be givers of comfort. Oglesby, who makes great performances seem effortless, is spot-on as an interfering while only-trying-to-help mother, who makes the purchase of a set of luxury bedsheets both a passive-aggressive and tenderly thoughtful gesture.
Van's take on the stereotypical church lady, buoyed up high by her service to others, is a spot-on delight. Jaafaru, who has a gift for disappearing into the roles she plays, accomplishes the same as Turtle, causing us to want to know more about this curious woman who seems always a step or two behind what is happening. Both Ehikhamhen, as Lena's empathetic friend, and Ford, as a younger sister who wraps her affection in barbed rejoinders, create women of keen intelligence, compassion and self-assurance, whom any person suffering as Lena suffers would be grateful to have beside them.
Johnson is likeable, which comes so naturally to him, as Nathan, while conveying the reticence of a man trying to be supportive of his partner's feelings while struggling to contain his own. One wishes he had more to do in Weathering, though of course, the nurturing community formed by women is the core of the play. (Perhaps a different play could consider the absence of such community for so many men). Yet it is only when Lena and Nathan find communion with one another that they are able to move beyond their heartbreak. Rivers leaves us with the hope of this happening. Indeed, Weathering can be seen as almost a "how-to guide" on surrounding yourself with the right team of exasperating but loving people as windbreaks while you allow your worst feelings to surface in order to weather the harshest of life's storms.
Speaking of storms, Kathy Maxwell's lighting design and Ahanti Young's sound design contribute mightily to the production's success, creating indicators of foreboding that are diametrically in contrast with Warren's stylish set. Trevor Bowen has dressed the actors in costumes that perfectly suit each one, with special props for the church lady's country-patchwork styled dress, and Lena's formless, engulfing sweater.
While the infuriatingly higher rate of stillbirths, miscarriage, and other threats to infant and maternal health among African Americans in our nation deserves, and is given, its due in Weathering it must be stressed that this play depicts a tragedy that can occur in any family in my own, we have twice been visited by this kind of loss and the web of support that must be both sturdy and pliant, on which grieving parents can crawl up from their depths, applies in any community. That said, Rivers gives Weathering the specificity of tone, dialogue and context that make his play all the more authentic, and hence all the more meaningful to anyone in its audience. It is utterly beautiful, powerful and believe me as gloriously funny as it is profound. Not to be missed.
Weathering runs through November 6, 2022, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $20.00- $45.00. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Harrison David Rivers; Director: Colette Robert; Scenic Design: Chelsea Masteller Warren; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Assistant Costume Designer: Joe Burch III; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: Ahanti Young; Properties Mistress: Amy Reddy; Costume and Wardrobe Support: Mary Farrell; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhoades; Swing Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Ella Egan.
Cast: Vinecia Coleman (Woman: Lena), Oyeman Ehikhamhen (Friend: Jo), Ashwanti Ford (Sister: Nikko), Dior Gregory (Girl: Luz), Ashe Jaafaru (Neighbor: Turtle), JuCoby Johnson (Man: Nathan), Greta Oglesby (Mother: Easter), Austene Van (Church Lady: Margaret Wilson).