The timing of Paul Oakley Stovall's play "Immediate Family" couldn't have been better, premiering just weeks after both President Barack Obama and the civil rights organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People offered up historic endorsements of same-sex marriage.
And in the tradition of progressive dramas like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" and challenging sitcom comedies like "All in the Family," "Immediate Family" strives to bring about social change on a personal level via an involving family story that is jam-packed with laughs.
"Immediate Family"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or immediatefamilyplay.com or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday (no shows July 2-4), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; Schedule after July 10: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 5
Running time: About 95 minutes with no intermission
Parking: nearby pay garages
Rating: For older teens and adults
Stovall's "Immediate Family" is a major reworking of his earlier play "As Much As You Can," previously staged in Chicago by the Dog and Pony Theatre Company at the Raven Theatre in 2005. Fast-forward seven years and now "Immediate Family" appears poised to make a larger impact via a higher profile Chicago production at the Goodman Theatre with a director famed for her TV work: Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad of "The Cosby Show."
The drama is mainly focused on the return of Jesse Bryant, Jr. (Phillip James Brannon) to his family home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for the wedding of his youngest brother, Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). Though Jesse is open about being gay to his half-sister Ronnie Hahn (Cynda Williams) and his lesbian childhood friend Nina Cole (J. Nicole Brooks), he hasn't been brave enough to out himself to the rest of his family.
We soon see why when Jesse's teacher sister, Evy Bryant Jerome (Shanèsia Davis), solicits his help to write profiles on African-American historical figures for her students to perform. Evy refuses to consider openly gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin or "A Raisin in the Sun" playwright Lorraine Hansberry as appropriate people for her class.
Jesse also has apprehensions about how his family will react to his Swedish photographer boyfriend, Kristian Silborn (Patrick Sarb), who has recently proposed marriage with the hope that Jesse will journey back with him to Sweden, where gay marriage has been legal since 2009.
Stovall's "Immediate Family" is abundant with great, crackling dialogue that gets lobbed back and forth between his passionate characters. Stovall also divulges a slew of family and relationship secrets beyond Jesse's mixed feelings at outing himself to his sister and brother to keep audiences guessing and surprised throughout.
As a director, Rashad elicits juicy performances from her cast. Particularly strong is the nonstop (and very funny) bickering of Shanèsia Davis' Evy with Cynda Williams' Ronnie while Kamal Angelo Bolden's Tony plays reluctant referee. The in-your-face exuberance and fashion-posing preening of J. Nicole's Brooks' Nina is also a load of fun.
Phillip James Brannon wonderfully exudes Jesse's personal dilemma of being true to himself and not wanting to rock the boat, while Davis is articulate as Evy in pointing out her opposition to homosexuality.
If one wants to find fault with "Immediate Family," it could be Stovall's decision to make Jesse's boyfriend European so he could separate their interracial relationship from America's long and turbulent history of race relations (even so, Tony's personal reasons for objecting to Kristian as a white guy are pretty hilarious). Because of this, it's hard to completely buy Sarb's restrained and nondescript performance as Kristian since his character feels more like a plot device instead of a fully realized person.
Though some might accuse Stovall of being a tad too preachy with "Immediate Family," he ultimately succeeds at getting his characters' opinions across and possibly fostering a change in viewpoints. "Immediate Family" is also riding the zeitgeist in terms of shifting American attitudes over gay marriage, and it most definitely makes its case with abundant feeling and humor.