Photo by Michael Brosilow
There are secrets lurking within the heart of Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ Last Night and the Night Before, but this beautiful, painful family drama isn’t about them. Grays is not interested in a mystery; things are revealed simply and directly. What she is interested in are relationships and the bonds that tie us together and the sacrifices we make for those we love. A moving and unusual drama (that will also make you laugh a lot), this play explores these powerful connections that grow between people and what happens when they are tested. It’s a play that contains abandonment, addiction, mental illness, sacrifice, and powerful, painful scenes of people dealing with each of them…but, ultimately, it is all about love, how deep it goes, and whether there are lines we will not cross for our loved ones.
Valerie Curtis-Newton directs a powerful cast on a wonderful multi-level set by Regina Garcia that is simultaneously a townhouse in New York and various locations in rural Georgia. The townhouse is home to Rachel (Sydney Charles) and Nadima (Jessica Dean Turner), whose lives are heading smoothly in the direction they had planned. An awkward and unexpected visit from Rachel’s sister Monique (Ayanna Bria Bakari) and her pre-teen daughter Sam (Kylah Renee Jones, whom I saw, and Aliyana Nicole play the role on different nights) sets in motion conflicts with no easy answers that play out in both the North and the South.
Monique, who has had trouble with drugs and with the demons conjured up by her own mind (she appears to be schizophrenic) has done this sort of thing before, and Nadima is extremely reluctant to let her do it again. Rachel, though, feels that some of her sister’s issues stem from her own decision to leave the then-14-year-old Monique in the unhealthy household of their parents in order to strike out on her own, so she feels strongly that she needs to support Monique—and maybe more importantly, Sam—in ways she failed to before. The strain that this places on her and Nadima becomes much worse when they figure out that Monique has not been telling them the truth about why she left Georgia, and becomes even worse than that when she suddenly vanishes in the night, leaving her daughter behind.
Grays’ scenes jump around not only in location but also in time. The Georgia scenes show us the strain that dealing with Monique’s mental health issues has placed on both Sam and her father Reggie (Namir Smallwood). We see the loving bond between Reggie and Sam as he tries his best to be both father and mother, but we also see their concerns about Monique, who seems these days to be living mostly on the street. Far from the absentee father Monique paints him as to her sister, Reggie appears to be the one who cares most deeply about Sam…and her mother as well.
Sam is a quiet, polite girl who is both on the cusp of puberty—she gets her first “monthlies” during the play—and at the center of a very messy family dynamic. Jones’ performance, whether she is sitting in her aunt’s doorway wondering what will happen to her or playing one of many clapping rhyme games with herself, reveals a depth beyond her (and her character’s) years. (Sam’s often humorous revised words in some of the rhymes help us see how she handles the difficulties of her life.) Inner depth or not, though, an 11-year-old child is going to develop scars from a life like this, and Jones—who at first seems like the pawn Sam is in her mother’s plan—slowly opens up to show a blossoming young girl dealing with the difficult emotions that life has thrust upon her.
The adults here are uniformly excellent as well. Bakari’s Monique is such a mess that we can’t blame her even for child abandonment (which is a neat trick to pull off). Turner’s Nadima, who never intended to have to handle the chaos that Monique brings into her life, tries nonetheless but it’s all just too much, and she too is not a villain. None of them is: they are all just doing their best. Smallwood, in one of the subtly nuanced performances we have become accustomed to seeing from him, gives Reggie such honest love for his wife and child that he would give his life for them…and makes us believe it completely. And Charles, whose Rachel thought she had escaped the difficulties of her upbringing but finds that they have just followed her north, moves from a somewhat self-centered person at the start to one capable of opening her heart to someone who needs her. This is the one character with a true growth arc, and Charles nails it with and outstanding performance.
Curtis-Newton moves them through the sometimes complicated relationships of this family with a highly sensitive hand and a preternatural sense of pacing. She is unafraid to allow some moments to play as if Aaron Sorkin or Amy Sherman-Palladino had written them, with conversations so quick that they fly by like a juggler’s bouncing balls, while other moments steep in powerful silence that lets the stage picture do all of the talking. She takes every advantage of Garcia’s set and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting, while Larry Fowler’s lovely sound design provides added layers of detail everywhere.
Ultimately, Grays asks her characters—and each member of the audience—the question that the Bee Gees asked in 1977: how deep is your love? For some, the answers (a few of which do come a little too quickly and easily, like those jugglers’ balls) are much deeper than for others.
Last Night and the Night Before is playing at Steppenwolf Theatre’s mainsstage, 1650 N. Halsted, until May 14. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.