Oh, well this one is just a delight.
New, quality theatrical comedies are truly rare, but Familiar, a heartfelt story of an intra-family culture clash ahead of a winter wedding in Minnesota, makes you laugh so hard that by the time it turns to drama, you’re in it all waist-deep.
How good is this play? You somehow wish that EVERYone’s part was bigger. Especially Inga Ballard, so exquisite as an African-born matriarch fiercely defending the world she’s built. No, wait, but especially especially Shannon Dorsey, the heart of the piece as a sick-of-the-shadow younger sister. And particularly especially Andy Truschinski, the last to join the fun and a charming fish out of water.
Written by Danai Gurira and directed by Adam Immerwahr, Familiar concerns the marriage of Tendi (an impassioned but touchingly vulnerable Sharina Martin), the older, over-achieving daughter of upper-middle class Zimbabwean immigrants, and Chris (Drew Kopas is believable and human every single moment — and that includes some wacky moments) a white boy from the Gopher State who has no idea what he’s getting into. Trouble — both farce and a reckoning — arrives in the form of Auntie Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce never goes too broad, but doesn’t shy from silly), an older relative just just flown in from the home county with scores to settle and eyes on a prize. Also along for the ride is Donald, father and husband to this loud-if-loving mess, played as quietly haunted by Kim Sullivan, and a younger aunt, Margaret, as whom Twinkle Burke is so warmly sympathetic you have a hard time taking your eyes off her. Friction builds to fire over the bride’s decision to practice Roora, an African bride-price ceremony that not everyone’s pleased to observe.
Add Christian themes, freezing conditions, some whiskey and wine, and an over-abundance of buried family secrets, and stir. And stand way back.
But such is the generosity of spirit of Woolly Mammoth’s latest show, going on now until March 4, that none of the fighting and crying ever feels mean. You never doubt that these characters deeply love each other, but that doesn’t mean every thing broken in this story gets fixed by the end.
It’s tough not to rave about Paige Hathaway’s set — here’s a living room fait accompli. My Minnesota-raised theatre companion commented: “I’ve been in that house.” Similarly, if you have complaints about Karen Perry’s costumes, I’d suggest you get your eyes checked; characters speak through their threads. Productions probably only get this satisfying when the whole crew is eager to do a exemplary job: we have two different dialect coaches in the program for Familiar.
This is likely the best show in this year’s Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. Here’s one wedding with an easy “yes” for the RSVP.