BWW Reviews: The Ensemble Theatre's IMMEDIATE FAMILY is Comedic and Touching
Paul Oakley Stovall's IMMEDIATE FAMILY is usually described as being "Modern Family meets Soul Food" and sometimes described as "Modern Family meets All in the Family." Both are adequate comparisons and give an idea of what audiences can expect without giving too much away. Tapping into a larger cultural experience and an important vein of American theatre, Paul Oakley Stovall has created a modern play where things go awry when family gets together. While a comedy, the writing and thematic elements of this production are on par with Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN, both of which explore family are often found in lists of the 10 most important plays from American theatre. No matter the situation in the play, there is something so universal about presenting family bonds. Here, Paul Oakley Stovall has let his words meld with skilled precision, ensuring that every member of the audience can learn, grow, and gain from experiencing his work.
Direction by Eileen J. Morris is superb. IMMEDIATE FAMILY recently enjoyed a run in the Goodman Theatre's Owen's Theatre in Chicago with direction by Phlyicia Rashad. Personally, if I were director, that would have been an almost unbearable stressor on me; however, in performance it seems to not have even crossed Eileen J. Morris' mind. Her cast delivers lines with natural fluidity. Across the two acts and 90 minutes of performance time, everything that occurs on the stage feels entirely realistic. The show clips along at the snappy pace of a sitcom. It never lulls or grows dull, as something is always happening and there is plenty to look at on the stage. Additionally, Eileen J. Morris has coached every member of the cast to create believable characters that remind the audience of people they know, and when it comes to the dramatic elements, the stakes are both high and clear.
The central conflict of the play is that Jesse, a gay man, is keeping his sexuality a secret from his straight-laced sister Evy and his virile brother Tony. AdrIan Porter deftly makes his Jesse uncomforted by the burden of the secret. He also finds a way to exude a palpable nervousness brought on by the fear of his family finding out. Rachel Hemphill Dickson's Evy is entirely by the books. For her, every detail is planned out in advance. She consistently attempts to control the family, yanking on her reigns anytime something doesn't go according to her plans. Rachel Hemphill Dickson brings out a sophisticated intelligence and warm heart in Evy, making her likeable despite her being domineering. Likewise, her controlling nature comes from her nurturing personality and her position as the oldest child and rock of the family. As Tony, Kendrick "KayB" Brown brings life to the youngest of the three siblings, making him somewhat egotistical and selfish. He is foolhardy, racing into marriage with a big secret of his own.
Adding into the mix of funny familial tensions is the hysterical, alcoholic half-sister Ronnie, played pristinely by An'tick Von Morphxing. The product of an affair, Ronnie has her feet in two worlds. She is generally accepted by her half-siblings, but tensions center around her illegitimacy and her being half white. Encumbered in this manner, An'tick Von Morphxing's Ronnie is able to bring to light extremely poignant issues that Americans still struggle with in regards to race. This adds affecting and thought provoking meat and grit behind Paul Oakley Stovall's comedy. However, she is not alone in this venture. Florence Garvey's uproarious lesbian Nina, a childhood friend of Jesse's, often steals the scene whenever she is present. Her energetic and rambunctious character is a true highlight of the performance, yet she, Jesse, and Jesse's secret boyfriend Kristian, played with delighting grace by Steve Bullitt, are profoundly able to expose issues with homophobia in modern American society.