Review: FAMILIAR at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: FAMILIAR at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Danai Gurira’s FAMILIAR, now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, offers up a lighthearted and laugh-out-loud funny family comedy, even as the play probes questions of identity and assimilation into American culture. Director Danya Taymor’s dynamite ensemble builds on the richness of the characters inherent in Gurira’s script.

FAMILIAR introduces us to the Chinyaramwiras, a Zimbabwean-American family living in Minnesota who come together on the eve of the wedding of eldest daughter Tendiyaki to Chris, a white American from Minnetonka. Parents Marvelous and Donald have tried their best to assimilate into American culture and raise both Tendi and her younger sister Nyasha in a similar fashion, though the latter has a fervent interest in learning more about her family’s history and customs after a recent visit to Zimbabwe. When Tendi’s Aunt Anne arrives unexpectedly from Zimbabwe to carry out a traditional pre-wedding ceremony for Tendi and Chris, chaos ensues. Gurira’s narrative takes us down a path both hilarious and contemplative in its reflection on identity and what it means to be an American immigrant.

Gurira, who herself is Zimbabwean-American, clearly has a great deal of empathy for all of her characters. The first-rate ensemble members find every moment of humor and heart in their roles. As sisters Marvelous, Margaret (“Maggie”), and Anne, Ora Jones, Jacqueline Williams, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce have such vital on-stage chemistry that one has little doubt they could truly be related. As Tendi and Nyasha’s mother Marvelous, Jones channels a fierceness and yet also a tender love for her daughters; she’s firm in her defense of her choices about how to raise her children and her wishes for Tendi as she approaches her wedding day. As Donald, Cedric Youngs complements Jones nicely and bestows so much warmth in his performance. Bruce mines every bit of comedy in her performance without every overplaying it and remaining true to her character’s integrity. Though Williams’s role as Maggie is perhaps less outsized than the other two sisters, she finds plenty of humorous beats that land just right. Familiar_8

Lanise Antoine Shelley brings a more grounded presence as Tendi, though she also clearly demonstrates her character’s franticness as she prepares for her big day. As Chris, Erik Hellman is an excellent complement to Shelley; the two are perfectly sweet together. Celeste M. Cooper is stellar as Nyasha, fitting her character to a “T” with a balance between frenetic n moments of high tension and relaxed in personality. As Chris’s younger brother Brad, Luigi Sottile is an excellent foil for Nyasha; the two share some of the best banter of the night. Sottile also holds his own with some punchy and perfectly-timed line deliveries.

Production-wise, FAMILIAR pulls out all the stops. Kristen Robinson’s set is dazzlingly realistic, putting the action in a house that feels both pristine and lived in at the same time. The production design has some of the most stunning details I’ve seen, down to the Minnesota snow coming down each time the front door of the house opens. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene’s costume designs employ a vibrant color palette and also beautifully represent the melding of American and Zimbabwean cultures in the narrative. Marcus Doshi lighting design punctuates key moments in the script, as does Justin Ellington’s sound design. Somi’s original compositions also give Cooper a heart-stopping moment in which to show off her lovely singing voice.

While there’s much to enjoy in the storyline of FAMILIAR and Gurira’s brilliant blend of both the specific and more universal unfolding of the family dynamics therein, not everything quite works. The play’s first act is extremely tight, full of laughs and stand-out moments. After FAMILIAR introduces a plot twist in the second act, however, the pacing slows and takes a rather dramatic turn toward the more serious. The second half also includes a few too many monologues, which while heartfelt and great character vehicles for the actors, are meandering. Fortunately, the play ends on a hopeful and captivating note. Familiar_14

Though FAMILIAR falls under the family comedy genre we often encounter around the holidays, Gurira’s play is entirely unique. In terms of its ability to deliver heart and warmth, however, FAMILIAR certainly keeps up with the best of them. The play is deeply rooted in the specific narrative of its characters and their experiences, but audiences will also easily see themselves reflected in the quirky family dynamics that unfold.

FAMILIAR plays through January 13 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted. Tickets are $20-$109. Visit or call 312.335.1650.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

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