Chicago Theater Review: FAMILIAR (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 27, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


The title Familiar alludes to family—and, when loved ones squabble over who they are and where they come from, this title questions just what is familiar. A Chicago premiere from Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Familiar is Danai Gurira’s family tragicomedy about whose legacy will control the future.

Insistently manic, Danya Traymor’s staging, unfortunately, fits all too well a well-intentioned but formulaic depiction of familiar familial dysfunction. The result is a first act full of forced farce and a sobered-up second act that doesn’t quite earn its supposedly serious significance.

Ostensibly, Familiar is about what is not so routine in the Chinyaramwira clan, a family of Zimbabwean emigres living in 2011 in a swank house (Kristen Robinson’s showroom set) in a Minneapolis suburb. They’re about to participate in a pivotal rehearsal dinner for the elder daughter’s much-awaited wedding to a white religious activist. (Mind you, the play is not about—and does not address—the challenges of interracial marriage. It has other fish to fry.)

A devout believer and an astute businesswoman, Tendikayi (Lanise Antoine Shelley), the ultimate Christian capitalist, is fixing to marry virginal Chris (Erik Hellman), a sweet guy on a short leash. The bride’s doting parents, Marvelous (Ora Jones) and Donald (Cedric Young), have planned a respectable Christian ceremony, with helpful input from conciliatory Auntie Margaret Munyewa (Jacqueline Williams).

But all nuptial plans collapse with the unexpected and unwanted arrival from Africa of interloping Aunt Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a stalwart Zimbabwean patriot who insists on—and forces—a traditional tribal marriage. In close order, autocratic Anne, now dolled up in full Zimbabwean regalia, bullies everyone to prove their loyalty to the homeland. They must reinstate such customs as respectful obeisance to presumed village elders, a bride-price (roughly $10,000) instead of a dowry that’s placed in a wooden bowl, and assorted vows whose meaning escaped awareness long ago.

The culture clash over the upcoming hitching yields humorous “fish out of water” complications that were old when Abie’s Irish Rose trod the boards. It includes a clumsy bit of contrived horseplay: The bride’s sister Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) bursts in, having wandered outside into the Minnesota cold, only to have the groom’s slacker brother Brad (Luigi Sottile) strip down to his torso and rub his body all over her to get her warm. Don’t ask why guitar-playing Nyasha was outside, why doofus Brad has to take off his shirt, and why nobody brings a blanket: The author needed a desperately comic ending to finish off the first act, and this is all she could come up—or down—with. (Of course, if it was a black man throwing down a white woman and exposing her upper regions to the chortling crowd, the sexual harassment — not the physical comedy — would be blatantly obvious.)

But, if you thought the first act was about a family feud over a rite of passage, you were cruelly misled. No, as if Gurira decided that Familiar was not serious enough (which was true), the second act is suddenly somber. In one over-freighted scene, family secrets and dirty laundry open up much more than any mockery of marriage. Big problems erupt, like whether the parents will split up over dad Donald literally returning to his roots and what happens when daughter Tendikayi discovers that she was born out of an ongoing civil war. Abruptly and with a vengeance, Familiar is about something much more real than the previous slapstick.

This lurching stylistic switch takes its toll. An audience can’t be sure what the real story is here—the follies of the first act, which often get lost in their own details, or the grown-up identity crisis in the second, which seems gratuitously somber, as if we were wrong to laugh in the first place. (It’s exactly the sudden wrenching tonal turnabout that, earlier this year, made Steppenwolf’s African-themed, farce-turned-tragedy The Doppelganger so hard to credit.)

No doubt, director Donya Taymor’s octet—perfectly timed and realistically rooted performers—commit to their treacherously shifting stories. They’re fully invested in the roller-coaster ride. But, by the end, whether an audience will take the final lesson about legacies more sincerely than the buffoonery that spoofs the Chinyaramwiras’s search for an “origins story” is very much in doubt. Stronger stuff is at stake here than Familiar can convincingly present.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St
ends on January 13, 2019
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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