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The Brother/Sister Plays
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2010-03-01

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Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Phone: 312-335-1650; $20-$70. Runs through: May 23.

It was a smart idea for the playbill to includes a genealogy chart. Each of the three stories comprising the collectively-titled Brother/Sister Plays may be viewed individually, but it is almost impossible not to unite them into a comprehensive saga depicting three generations of a rural bayou-country community at once familiar and exotic. Before we are done, we will see one character lose both the wife and the brother he loves, through no fault of his own. Two men will be destroyed by their unavowed affection for one another, the women who bear them children likewise emerging emotionally crippled—and what of the offspring whose history is a legacy of intrigue and silence?

Tarell Alvin McCraney recounts these tales in language that shifts smoothly from the weighty oratory we associate with the late August Wilson to the vivid imagery characteristic of the regional idiom ( where a taciturn lad is accused of being "shy between the teeth" ) , enhanced by lyrical descriptive passages—in particular, odes of a sensuality bespeaking the gay status of both playwright McCraney and director Tina Landau. But what keeps the dramatic flow from miring down in verbal density ( did I mention the many significant dreams related by the dreamers? ) is a presentation style reminiscent of Story-Theatre third-person narrative.

Thus, the actor playing, say, Shango may say to us "Shango smiles," before doing so—a technique facilitating intellectual distance that, in turn, allows short rest periods within our empathetic involvement ( this is not an excuse to zone out, however, since the spoken "stage directions" often reveal important insights as well ) . There are also soliloquies and asides, confidences delivered at us with full eye contact. There is music, too—some integrated into the action as a reflection of the ethnic culture, and some rooted in bedroom singalongs to the radio.

The total time required for these chronicles is three hours and 40 minutes, but this is not another August: Osage County. Steppenwolf Theatre's repertory arrangement permits playgoers to attend the two-hour double-ticket of The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, or the 100-minute In the Red and Brown Water, on different nights, while fans of festival theater can take in all three in a single day on weekends. But make no mistake—McCraney is a star on the rise. No matter in what increments you discover this for yourself, you won't be sorry.


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