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THEATER REVIEW The First Deep Breath
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-11-24

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Playwright: Lee Edward Colston II

At: Victory Gardens Theatre at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: VictoryGardens.org and 773-871-3000; $31-$65. Runs through: Dec. 22

Don't begrudge Lee Edward Colston II his play's running time—three acts of one hour. each separated by an intermission. As August: Osage County recently demonstrated, some stories require extensive time and space to be told fully, and Colston is nothing if not thorough in his effort to ensure that all questions are answered and all arguments explored before we decide what path our author means us to follow.

In the first 10 minutes, we are informed by the Rev. Albert Melvin Jones III, pastor of Philadelphia's Mother Bethel Baptist Church, that the next year marks the sixth anniversary of his beloved daughter Diane's untimely death, that his loyal wife Ruth is gradually succumbing to Alzheimer's disease, and that his elder son Abdul-Malik ( formerly Albert Melvin Jones IV ) is to be released after serving a six-year prison sentence for the crime of sexual assault. If the clergyman hoping to expand his ministry is uneasy at the trials that beset his claim to leadership, though, his kindred—matronly Aunt Pearl, teenage son AJ and neighboring bestie Tyree, twin daughter Denise and her fiance Leslie—likewise chafe under the secrecy necessary to maintain the appearance of perfection demanded by the unforgiving clan patriarch.

Such quandaries are rarely resolved quickly. As of opening night, Colston was reported to still be making changes to his script, as any playwright might, but this world premiere performance nevertheless revealed a multiplicity of parables addressing diverse social problems current today, examined in language encompassing proverbs so articulate, they should be stitched on framed samplers ( "Before you meet bravery, you must first shake hands with fear" ) as well as romantic declarations poetic enough to pair with roses and engraved stationery.

It's not just sermonizing, however: The characters' progress includes scenes of music ( vocal, instrumental and terpsichoral ), simulated sex ( gay and het ) and two grand operatic full-cast melees leaving the stage furnishings in shambles. In a crisis where even the dead ( whose ashes command a formal shrine within the household decor ) are held to account, only through acknowledgement of responsibility can the contagion afflicting the filial community be lifted and a lasting peace accomplished.

The complexity involved in deploying eight performers over a three-level interior could easily reduce traffic patterns to slapstick chaos, but director Steve H. Broadnax III and an array of astute designers have familiarized the cast with the infrastructure of their dramatic environment to render them aware of every staircase, door-latch and impediment ( a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, for example ) concealing potential to upset the equilibrium of actors less physically and mentally agile than those assembled for this noteworthy production.


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