By: C.J. Arellano
It might seem crass and a little obvious to compare “Immediate Family” to a sitcom. Nonetheless, the play, at the Goodman Theatre now until August 5, does come packed with punchlines, sharply defined personality types, and straightforward interpersonal conflict, all of which unfurl in a handsome domestic setting. Heck, there’s even a wacky neighbor. To top it all off, although director Phylicia Rashad has a storied stage career under her belt, she’ll have forever won the hearts of millions as Cosby matriarch, Clair Huxtable.
The kind of sitcom that “Immediate Family” emulates, whether by design or happenstance, isn’t the kind that features pies in the face, clumsy idiots, and improbable misunderstandings. Rather, it harkens to that other breed of sitcom, the kind that insists on a combustible mix of opinions, values, and yearnings all churning like a tornado in a single living room, a la “All in the Family,” “Roseanne,” and yes, “The Cosby Show.” While domestic dramedies are a dime a dozen, both onstage and on television, “Immediate Family” shines thanks to its generosity of spirit, emotional honesty, and meticulous understanding of human nature, all of which hum underneath the earned and raucous laughter.
“Immediate Family,” written by Paul Oakley Stovall, finds four grown siblings reuniting at their parents’ house for the first time in years. Jesse (Phillip James Brannon) is the beloved oldest brother who has been adventuring abroad. Evy (Shane’sia Davis) is the stern sister who has carried the brunt of responsibility for years. Ronnie (Cynda Williams) is the warm and disarming lush whose lineage isn’t a popular topic of discussion among the siblings. Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden) is the big-hearted youngest brother whose impending marriage serves as the impetus for the reunion.
Amidst hugs, catch-up stories, card games, and visits from Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), their firecracker of a friend and neighbor, lingering tensions burst forth when Jesse introduces his family to Kristian (Patrick Sarb), a gentle-mannered Swede whom only some of Jesse’s siblings know is his long-term boyfriend.
The core strength of the production, evident early on in the evening, is the cast’s winning rapport. As the playwright, Stovall has a razor-sharp understanding of the complicated dynamic that can bubble and fester between two siblings, let alone four: with words and actions both conscious and subliminal, siblings can raise or raze each other’s spirits. They can heal old wounds and open fresh ones. They can fight and forgive and repeat the process until the sun comes up. Of course, the same can be said for any deep and lasting relationship, but siblings, especially similarly aged and opinionated ones like these, carry the advantage and volatile disadvantage of knowing each other since the cradle.
Stovall knows how to write family relationships, and Rashad and her stellar cast give shape to those dynamics in a breathlessly convincing manner. Their dialogue sounds less like staged theatre and more like an actual family: they talk over each other, they speak in shorthand, and they interrupt even themselves. For better or worse, the Goodman tends to favor tricked out sets, bombast, and envelope-pushing spectacle. But here, with a single setting and straightforward narrative, all the hard behind-the-scenes workshopping seems to have been funneled into ensuring that this family really feels like a family. For the audience, this back-to-basics approach is, in a word, rewarding.
“Immediate Family” has plenty of ideas on its mind regarding race and sexual orientation, but Stovall’s script is never so lazy or indulgent to reduce its characters to politicized mouthpieces. It would have been too easy for Stovall to write Jesse as a victimized martyr simply punished for loving another man. It would have been even easier to write Evy as a narrow-minded bigot too plagued by her ideas of tradition, right, and wrong to appreciate her brother’s wants and needs.
Rather, in the world of “Immediate Family,” no one is blameless and everyone displays tendencies toward denial, cowardice, stubbornness, and willful ignorance. Guided by Rashad, the entire cast – not a weak link among this whip-smart and heartfelt bunch – seems to appreciate the delicate nuances embedded within Stovall’s collection of flawed individuals. In particular, Shane’sia Davis galvanizes as Evy. In lesser hands, she would have been a villainous sacrificial lamb, someone an audience could unequivocally judge for her unsmiling ways and parochial attitudes. Davis, though, imbues Evy with heartache, vulnerability, and even grace. Like everyone else here, she’s thoroughly humanized.
“Immediate Family” is a play that swirls around topics of race, sexual orientation, and family, but to define it entirely in those terms is to minimize all the other heart and soul that the play and its fascinating inhabitants have to offer. When the lights go up, audiences might be driven to discus the night’s pricklier social issues on the way home. Others might simply think, “Gee, I already miss those characters.” Either way, “Immediate Family” feels like something more immediate than a stage play or a sitcom. It feels like home.