The First Deep Breath
At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Audiences know ahead of time that the Victory Gardens world premiere production of the family drama “The First Deep Breath” runs for about 3½ hours. But no pre-curtain alert will prepare spectators for the incendiary emotional and physical explosions to come. This is perhaps the most turbulent, riveting drama to hit the American stage since “August: Osage County,” another Chicago bred play, and that drama won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
The Lee Edward Colston II play introduces viewers to the African American Jones family living in Philadelphia. The family consists of Albert III, a pastor at a local Baptist church, his wife Ruth, her sister Pearl, and the three adult Jones children, Denise, Albert IV, and AJ. Contributing to the narrative and emotional turbulence from the outside are Leslie Carter, Denise’s unofficial fiancé, and Tyree Fisher, a close (very close) friend of Albert IV.
The play opens on a disarming casual and comic note as several of the characters bicker and sass in sitcom style. The stakes start to rise with the arrival of Albert IV, who has just served a six-year prison sentence for rape. His sudden appearance foretells the eruptions to come, with his father pointedly ignoring him as an expression of resentment toward the young man for disgracing the family, and embarrassing the pastor careerwise.
Soon secrets and deceptions boil to the surface. There are sexual revelations that bring cries of surprise from the vocal opening night audience. The dialogue rises to breathtaking crescendos of surprise revelation and accusation. The verbal battles sometimes convulse into furious physical encounters, climaxed by a family fight at a holiday dinner that was the most physical and long-lasting mass brawl I can ever recall on a local stage.
In the final act the verbal heat softens into confession and some reconciliation, but it’s not enough. The wounds inflicted over lifetimes of deceit and misunderstanding are too deep to be healed with a handshake and a hug. The family irreversibly breaks up, possibly foretelling better lives for some of the characters now that painful truths have finally been exposed. But no character survives emotionally and psychologically whole.
There were moments during the long evening when I felt that Colston was piling on the conflicts too heavily. Several arguments were powerful enough to end an act on a shocking note of surprise, but the action merely continued onto the next major eruption. But the play sustained its sometimes over-the-top episodes with such intensity that the audience had no choice but to go with the flow.
Colston’s script could not be served by a better cast. All eight members of the ensemble performed with such conviction and stamina that the viewer doesn’t have time to take a breath to consider whether the play perhaps suffers from dramatic overload. And there were times when the audience collectively giggled as still another bombshell was dropped, but that giggle may have been a reflexive reaction to the play’s intensity and what-next narrative twists and turns. In any case, the brilliance of the production is a remarkable collaboration among the playwright, director Steve H. Broadnax III, and the extraordinary ensemble.
Each character in the play has his or own story to tell and the Victory Gardens cast hits a bull’s-eye every time. To explore the individual stories would give away too many of the plot convolutions. So rather than bury this review in spoiler alerts, let it suffice that every performer is authentic and believable and sometimes eloquent, though sometimes in the third act the characters are so well spoken that it sounds like the extremely articulate playwright talking rather than the emotionally fraught characters. Yes, the play could have been shortened to a more conventional length by eliminating some of the confrontations, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to decide which ones to eliminate. Each high octane scene pays its way in excitement and tension, and sometimes humor.
Every performance grades out as an A+, so I will just list the actors alphabetically and attendees can single out for themselves which ones they rate the most highly. I suspect it would be an eight-way tie. So here is the roll of honor: Patrick Agada (AJ), David Alan Anderson (Pastor Jones), Gregory Fenner (Leslie Carter), Jalen Gilbert (Tyree Fisher), Melanie Loren (Denise), Clinton Lowe (Albert IV), Deanna Reed-Foster (Pearl), and Celeste Williams (Ruth). “The First Deep Breath” schedule includes four weekend performances over about a 48-hour period. How the cast can sustain its physical and emotional chops over such a short span is beyond amazing.
The creative team includes Regina Garcia (set design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Jason Lynch (lighting design), and Josh Schmidt (sound design). And a special standing ovation goes to Gaby Labotka as intimacy and fight director. The honors are split between Labotka’s realistic sex scenes and that dinner table fight that is a brawl for the theatrical ages.
“The First Deep Breath” is a product of the Victory Gardens 2018 Ignition Festival of New Plays. It’s an astounding achievement and it will be interesting to see if the play has a life beyond its Victory Gardens premiere, considering its problematic length and the casting demands for an African American ensemble that really requires eight star performances in perfect balance. This blazing work has earned national exposure but if the Victory Gardens is its first and last stop, at least its Chicago audiences can take satisfaction to sitting in on an exceptional dramatic experience.
The show gets a rating of
“The First Deep Breath” runs through December 22 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday 2 p.m. Tickets are $31 to $65. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. November 2019
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