By Sandi Durell
Can grief be good or bad or rather an emotional adjustment to the human condition of loss? Whatever the road one travels to assuage the pain is not usually within one’s control. This is the confusion that Nkechi [Ngozi Anyanwu – the playwright (The Homecoming Queen) and leading character] brings forth in her debut production at Vineyard Theatre. Nkechi is a palpable figure, leaving college, with thoughts of going to medical school, but instead retreating back to her Nigerian childhood home to examine her life . . . where she’s been, where she’s headed after the untimely and tragic death of her long term best friend – and even more – MJ (Ian Quinlan).
Big flashing lights mark time changes and a-ha moments, taking us from her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from bedroom to bedroom, encounter to encounter at school where her relationships move from the present to memory, swinging back and forth in a time warp of flashbacks. Nkechi’s loving brother – Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha) is her retreat to safety and always unconditional love as he comforts her attempting to bring solace and also some well received humor.
Once home, Nkechi is more cognizant of the depth of her attachment to MJ and their mutual love, overwhelming her in this realization of ultimate regret. Her Nigerian Mom NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) attempt to give her advice and comfort her as she breaks down. Papa just thinks she should go to medical school and move on. NeNe, a psychologist, tries her own brand of talk that appears less than soothing. This is both a funny and emotionally charged scene resulting in NeNe explaining “spooning” to Papa to comfort each other.
An old boyfriend JK (Hunter Parrish) appears in school and in a bedroom scene and we meet MJ’s Mom (Lisa Ramirez, who also plays Neighbor’s Mom) as Nkechi’s grief whirls in and through the lives of these characters. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know if scenes are flashbacks or unfulfilled wishes. The timeline moves so rapidly and out of any chronological order. You’ll also hear songs by the likes of Dave Matthews, along with other pop culture clues to mark the era.
Directed by Awoye Timpo, who worked with Ms. Anyanwu on The Homecoming Queen, there seems to be more repetition than needed to get points across. The cast shines in its uniformly high level performance of Ms. Anyanwu’s play and, in particular, the playwright as Nkechi.
But, I often wonder about the use of so much street language in these contemporary plays as it tends to denigrate rather than elevate and show a more respectful approach. I’m sure the younger audiences don’t even hear it at this point.
The two-tiered architectural and moveable parts structure (Jason Ardizzone-West), allows for viewing on multi-levels, with exceptional lighting design by Oona Curley.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Good Grief – Through November 18, Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street) NYC – runs 90 minutes no intermission www.vineyardtheatre.org