Thursday, June 14, 2012
Immediate Family is a groovy gay play that deserves your immediate attention
After a recent visit to Immediate Family, Paul Oakley Stovall's enjoyable new play at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, my partner and I both turned to one another and shared our identical reviews that we wanted to spend more time with the Bryant family of Hyde Park (a South Side neighborhood). And we would definitely tune in each week to see them on television. Unfortunately, Immediate Family is not a TV series, but it easily could be - and this is meant as a compliment because there are currently not that many entertaining family shows worth watching.
Stovall's 90-minute play is a cross between the 1967 Sidney Poitier/Katharine Hepburn film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Cosby Show, the popular 1984-92 sitcom - with a Modern Family gay twist. It tells the story of the Bryant siblings - Evy, who lives in their childhood home; Tony, who's about to get married; Jesse, who returns for his brother's wedding after a long absence; and Ronnie, their half-sister who enjoys a frequent cocktail. Almost all of them have secrets that, of course, will be shared during one emotional but often hilarious evening of drinking, fighting and card games. However, Jesse's revelation that his Swedish friend, Kristian, who arrives to take photos at the wedding, is actually his longtime lover provides the play with its central conflict as not everyone is thrilled by this news. There are many serious issues discussed in the play, but Stovall does a great job of balancing all of the drama with plenty of laughs.
The cast of Immediate Family couldn't be better, including Kamal Angelo Bolden, Phillip James Brannon, Patrick Sarb, Cynda Williams (whom I fondly remember as D'orothea in 1993's Tales of the City), and Shanésia Davis, who has the play's most difficult role as Evy - but she succeeds in making us understand and even sympathize with her despite the character's unpleasant narrow-mindedness. And then there is the scene-stealing J. Nicole Brooks, who plays the family's lesbian neighbor and friend Nina. She made me laugh out loud from the first moment that she opened her mouth to deliver one of her many amusing and risqué lines - and I easily could've listened to her all night long.
I must also mention John Iacovelli's fabulous set design of the Bryant home, which is warm and inviting - and made me want to move in immediately. And putting it all together is director Phylicia Rashad, who does an outstanding job of keeping the action smoothly flowing and emphasizing the play's wonderful sense of humor. Having spent eight seasons as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Rashad definitely knows her way around a family comedy - and this is quite evident onstage currently at the Goodman. But she and her actors are only able to shine so brightly due to the words written by Mr. Stovall, who does what all great writers should - he makes us care about his characters. And although I think he has the talent to be creating the next Cosby Show (but with mature language and adult themes), for now everyone in Chicago should go see his Immediate Family and have a good time.
Immediate Family runs through August 5 at the Goodman Theatre's Owen Bruner Theatre (170 N. Dearborn). Tickets are available through the box office, by phone at (312) 443-3800, or online at www.goodmantheatre.org.
Photos are by Michael Brosilow.