The winning "Immediate Family," written by Paul Oakley Stovall and directed by television and Broadway legend Phylicia Rashad, had this critic smiling so continuously, my cheeks were actually sore as I exited the building named the country’s Best Regional Theater by Time magazine (2003). The production runs just a scant few more days, with its final show concluding on August 5. See it now.
Let’s start with "Immediate Family’s" inventive set design, as it is the first element of the exceptional presentation to greet the audience member. Masterfully executed by John Iacovelli, the setting is a brownstone family home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, replete with a large bay window and accompanying seat, an inviting and cozy living room, modern kitchen with working faucet and a charming backyard.
Housed in the Goodman’s more intimate Owen Theater, there was no suspension of disbelief required. A one-dimensional stage morphed into a three-dimensional, living, breathing home stuffed with character history and memories. As the talented players moved about the set engaging in various subplots, my companion nudged me and said he felt as though he were looking into the familiar abode of a well-loved sitcom family, using every corner of the available space to create life.
And that seems fitting given that "Immediate Family" thrives under the expert direction of sitcom veteran Phylicia Rashad, beloved by millions of American families as the gold standard of have-it-all career mothers, Clare Huxtable. As the warm, tough-talking matriarch of 1980s megahit, "The Cosby Show," Rashad knows a thing or two about some of the finest features of the material she directs: family dynamics, broad physical comedy and the evolution of African-American culture. But where the Cosby family was sometimes criticized for being unrealistically perfect and G-rated, Rashad is given the gift of shades of gray by playwright Stovall.
The Bryant family is coming home to Chicago to celebrate a wedding. Baby brother Tony is betrothed and about to move out of the home he shares with eldest sister and de facto head of the family, Evy, an educator and aficionado of literature and African-American History. Evy is brusque and bossy to the point of rudeness, particularly when it comes to illegitimate, artistic half-sister Ronnie and almost anything else beyond her control, but as played with amazing depth and delicacy by the beautiful Shanesia Davis, the audience learns that Evy is hiding several intense layers of private pain.
Groom-to-be Tony enjoys the indulgence of his siblings typical of finishing last in the birth order. In the absence of the Bryant parents, who are both deceased, Evy plays the mother figure, however, as inhabited by the talented Kamal Angelo Bolden, Tony is a man rather than a boy, and one with surprising depth. He will be the first of his generation to greet parenthood and when his brother confesses a secret, Tony’s reaction is more complex and thoughtful than might be expected from a character that makes his debut in boxer shorts.
Biracial, worldly, erudite half-sister Ronnie, an expatriate who resides in Belgium, enjoys a complicated relationship with her siblings, particularly Evy, who marks her as "other" both in terms of ethnic profile and parentage. The tension between the women explodes in a drunken brawl that marks the comedic and dramatic pinnacle of the plot. It is a testament to the performance of Cynda Williams as Ronnie and Davis as Evy that I could laugh while my heart pounded.
Finally there is Phillip James Brannon as eldest Bryant sibling Jesse, a man struggling with his sexuality, his profession (a frustrated writer) and his love for a human of another race. All three of these pressures foster different conflicts between him and his brethren, his partner Kristian (Patrick Sarb) and his best friend Nina (J. Nicole Brooks).
But as Brannon’s careful performance substantiates, the person with whom he is clearly tussling is himself. In the hands of a less capable actor, around whom so much of the plot’s action turns, the end result could have been a mess. Instead it is an emotional, yet evenly paced treasure full of wit, drama and just plain sensational acting.
That last kudo deservedly extends to stellar supporting performances from Sarb and Brooks. Sarb manages to wear a look of guileless love without appearing pathetic while Brooks was, for me at least, a particular standout in a truly superb cast. She is a hoot, throwing herself into prat falls and ribald visual puns like an R-rated, lesbian Lucille Ball.
Toward the beginning of the production, the character of Evy wryly remarks to her little brother Tony, "See, that’s the problem: black people don’t support each other." She means this as a joke, but that irony is the very essence of "Immediate Family." It is certain the Bryants have their clashes.
There are some deeply rooted misunderstandings that combust in epic ways that only major family events seem to be able to foment, but by the time the curtain drops, learning and change have taken place. Tectonic shifts have occurred and support structures that may not have existed before are sturdier than ever. It’s a beautiful thing, beautifully acted, directed and produced.
"Immediate Family" runs through August 5 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, in Chicago. For info or tickets call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.