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A must-see testament to the complex beauty of family
|Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents|
Review by Lauren Emily Whalen
There’s no other word to describe Familiar, but warm.
The family comedy from Danai Gurira (yes, the same Danai Gurira who regularly kicks butt on The Walking Dead and in Marvel films – as if these weren’t enough, she’s also an accomplished playwright) radiates a gentle spirit of welcome, even when its characters are challenged most. And challenged they are, by cultural and religious differences, sibling squabbles and a devastating family secret. When Familiar‘s happy ending arrives, it’s earned by every individual. Taking place in a single night before a Minnesota winter wedding, Familiar inspires loud laughter and noisy tears, and Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere hits all the right notes in between.
Like Gurira herself, the family at the play’s center are from Zimbabwe, but now live in America. Both daughters grew up here and have the accents to prove it, though younger daughter Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) has just returned from a trip to the homeland and is newly inspired by her roots. She’s visiting for the wedding of her sister Tendi (Lanise Antoine Shelley), who has left her family’s Lutheran church for a more evangelical Christianity. (Nyasha speculates there’s only one reason Tendi is getting married in Minnesota in the winter, and it’s not the beautiful snow.) Parents Marvelous (Ora Jones) and Donald (Cedric Young) are proud of Tendi and her white fiance Chris (Erik Hellman), but when a surprise guest arrives from Zimbabwe, the normally boisterous but loving family is thrown into chaos.
I recently reviewed another of Gurira’s plays, Eclipsed, presented by Pegasus Theatre Chicago. Unlike that play, a searing drama about the women affected by Liberia’s civil war in the early aughts, Familiar has cozier surroundings. Scenic designer Kristen Robinson has constructed a palace of a Minnesota home, a refuge for matriarch Marvelous from the conflict-driven environment she once knew, and a golden opportunity for fun entrances and exits up and down the palatial staircase and in and out of many doors. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene‘s costumes incorporate the colorful Zimbabwean garb of auntie Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) with Tendi and Marvelous’s clean lines and muted tones, and Nyasha’s home-for-the-holidays sweats. Composer Somi‘s score is evocative and vibrant, an appropriately cinematic soundtrack for a tale that’s both intimate and epic.
Danya Taymor makes a triumphant return to Steppenwolf after directing 2017’s Pass Over, which was filmed by Spike Lee and premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Taymor has a keen eye for the quirks that make a family tick, from a husband-and-wife’s silent disagreement on wall hangings, to the dynamics between overachieving lawyer Tendi and Nyasha, who is still finding her place in life (with not-so-secret financial help from her father). Both Gurira and Taymor understand families, immigrants and first-generation offspring on a powerful level, nailing every detail and dynamic with razor-sharp precision. Every scene rings true, from the heartbreaking act two revelation to a romantic comedy-esque exchange between Nyasha and Brad (Luigi Sottile), Chris’s clueless but charming ex-military younger brother.
Familiar is all about ritual: the Zimbabwean pre-marriage exchange between the groom and the bride’s family, the TV football game that leaves them cheering, the traditional musical instrument Nyasha brings home. Even a snowstorm feels sacred in the world of Familiar. As is typical of Steppenwolf, the entire cast delivers down-to-earth, achingly realistic performances. Ensemble members Jones and Cooper create a nuanced mother-daughter relationship, and Chicago favorite Shelley embodies Tendi’s stubborn intelligence and complacency that is rocked to its core. Familiar is a must-see, a testament to the power of family in all its complex, grounded glory.
Familiar continues through January 13th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map). Tickets are $20-$109, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Celeste M. Cooper (Nyasha), Ora Jones (Marvelous Chinyaramwira), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Anne), Erik Hellman (Chris), Lanise Antoine Shelley (Tendikayi), Luigi Sottile (Brad), Jacqueline Williams (Margaret Munyewa), Cedric Young (Donald Chinyaramwira), Renee Lockett, Sam Pearson, Joseph Primes, Eunice Woods, Celeste Williams (understudies)
behind the scenes
Danya Taymor (director), Kristen Robinson (scenic design), Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Justin Ellington (sound design, musical direction), Gigi Buffington (company voice and text coach), Somi (composer), Michelle Lopez-Rios (dialect coach), Sasha Smith (intimacy consultant), Malcolm Ewen (production stage manager), Mary Hungerford (assistant stage manager), JC Clementz (casting director), Hallie Gordon (artistic producer), Kathryn Takabvirwa (Shona cultural consultant), Katelynn Barker (design assistant), Regina Victor (assistant director), Lydia Hanchett (additional properties), Penny Lane Studios (wig design), Tom Pearl (director of production), Dana Nestrick (crafts artisan), Hanna Wisner (additional wardrobe), Nakia Shalice Avila (stage management apprentice), May Treuhaft-Ali (research associate), Avo Randruut (Mbira instructor), Michael Brosilow (photos)