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Immediate Family at Goodman Theatre | Theater review

Paul Oakley Stovall’s terrific new play gets plenty of laughs out of evolving ideas of family.

Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Immediate Family

An impending wedding brings together four adult siblings at their Hyde Park family home in Paul Oakley Stovall’s smart new situation dramedy, which cleverly deals in evolving ideas of marriage and family. Youngest brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden) is the groom-to-be, but the play’s main focus is on middle sib Jesse (Phillip James Brannon), returning home for the first time in years. Jesse, who hasn’t come out to Tony or older sister Evy (Shanésia Davis), is bringing boyfriend Kristian (Patrick Sarb)—in the guise of a wedding photographer.

This sounds like the setup for a door-slamming farce, and Stovall’s early scenes are heavy on laughs—many of them generated by audacious scene-stealer J. Nicole Brooks as next-door neighbor Nina, Jesse’s lesbian best friend. She’s unimpressed with Jesse’s plan to pass off his partner as a “friend,” but agrees to go along with it. But as the play progresses, Stovall mixes in a number of complicating factors that change the stakes and shift allegiances. Half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams), for instance, is resented by Evy and supportive of Jesse; she seems like a natural ally for Kristian, until she learns something new about his family.

Brannon seems a bit stiff at first, but then that’s appropriate for his character’s situation; he gets looser as the revelations stack up. The rest of the cast is fearless and spot-on. The action, briskly paced by director Phylicia Rashad (who knows a little something about blending sitcom conventions and social issues), culminates in a bitter, liquor-fueled game of bid whist that breaks out into full-on violence—there’s some terrific physical comedy leavening the play’s emotional climax. Exploring the changing definitions of family on a single-family level, Stovall’s crafted an issue play that doesn’t taste like medicine.

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