Not a minute is wasted in the three-and-a-half hour runtime of Lee Edward Colston II’s epic dramatic masterwork “The First Deep Breath,” in its triumphant world-premiere production at Victory Gardens Theater. The insults keep flying, the secrets keep dropping and the truth keeps hurting. Every word is dripped in honey-flavored glass, waiting to fill you with sweetness and misery. The two make terribly excellent bedfellows.
If there’s truly any justice in this world, “The First Deep Breath” will have a long and storied life, performed by many actors at many different theaters for many years to come, deservedly heralded as the next Great American Play. If the Tyrone family of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the Weston family of “August: Osage County” get to be placed on the grand altar of American Playwriting, then the Jones family sure as hell belongs there, too.
Meet the Jones family of Germantown, Philadelphia: there’s Pastor Albert (David Alan Anderson), the patriarch of the household, ready to open his new megachurch; his wife, Ruth (Celeste Williams), slowly losing her memory to Alzheimer’s; and her sister Pearl (Deanna Reed-Foster), who’s moved in to help take care of the household. Then there are the three kids: AJ (Patrick Agada), a senior in high school who’s applying to college in order to follow in his father’s footsteps; Dee-Dee (Melanie Loren), a prison guard newly engaged to nurse Leslie (Gregory Fenner), and still recovering from the death of her twin sister, Dianne; and Abdul-Malik (Clinton Lowe), recently released from prison after six years, for a charge of sexual assault, ready to reunite with his family and his best friend, Tyree (Jalen Gilbert).
Waiting in the many pockets of Regina Garcia’s three-story set lies a play filled with dramatic reveals, countless shouting matches and deep introspection. “The First Deep Breath” deftly tackles issues of homophobia, self-hatred, unconditional love and what it means to truly forgive someone, culminating in an epic second-act Thanksgiving dinner that will be seared in your memory.
And wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the third act, each character will have revealed a deep secret or shared their truth, all through poetically daring dialogue. The elements of director Steve H. Broadnax III’s altogether marvelously rendered production are sometimes too much for Victory Gardens’ mainstage to handle. Transitions from scene to scene are in danger of damaging the electric pacing of the show, the final destructive sequence seemed a bit slow and messy on opening night—although it will surely grow stronger over the course of the run—and the very final moment of the play, as it stands now, comes off more as an afterthought than the cap to an epic, life-affirming piece of theatrical entertainment.
These are minor critiques within the world of this thrilling living-room play performed to perfection by an all-star ensemble. It feels unfair to single out a sole performer (they are all remarkable in their own light) but, if you’re like me, you might walk away remembering the fire and fury of Deanna Reed-Foster’s Aunt Pearl, who is given some of the piece’s more emotionally wrought monologues. And in a play that is primarily made up of characters volleying dialogue at one another, the production reaches a holy moment in the middle of the second act, starting with a true tear-jerker of poetry performed by Lowe, and concluding with a synchronized moment of music, dance and percussion that feels like touching the sublime. It is nothing short of transcendent.
If the American Theater is going to keep the living room play around, then “The First Deep Breath” serves as a shining example of how the form—archaic and stationary as it is—can evolve and shift. This is the scale, scope and grand epic nature of playwriting that theater historians have glorified for so long but through a perspective that has rarely been granted an opportunity to craft a narrative of this heft and ambition. I don’t believe in the Perfect Play, and “The First Deep Breath” is definitely not perfect, but like AJ tells us, “There’s beauty in broken things, if you’re brave enough not to hide the cracks.” In that case, Colston II’s play may be the bravest play of the year. (Ben Kaye)
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000, victorygardens.org, $31-$65. Through December 22.