A comfortable Brooklyn townhouse makes up nearly the entire set for the Steppenwolf’s current, superbly acted and profoundly moving production of Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ “Last Night and the Night Before.” The front living/dining room is brightly filled with tasteful contemporary decor à la Pottery Barn. The sleek, open kitchen at the back of the set is the well-appointed sort where bags from Whole Foods and enameled French pepper grinders dispense their bougie privilege. We see the set before the play starts, but it isn’t where the action begins. There are a few small spaces on stage beyond the townhouse where flashbacks happen, not in Brooklyn but at the edges of a dead-end town in Georgia. There, the young African American family of parents Reggie and Monique work to give their daughter a happy life, but also one which warns her against the domestic dangers shaping up in their home and from sexual and criminal predators outside. As the stage lights rise dimly, we see Reggie digging a ditch. Then there’s more light and we see his daughter, Sam, age ten or eleven, standing and looking on stonily as he plunges his shovel into the earth. Then more light. Reggie rolls a body wrapped in a blanket into the ditch. Action then jumps to the house in Brooklyn. The young mom, Monique, rings the bell and bangs hard on the door. She has Sam in tow. It’s the home of Monique’s sister and the imposing woman who’s her partner, who gives Monique a chilly reception.
We learn soon enough that whenever Monique comes to see her older sister, Rachel, and her lover, Nadima, it’s because she’s in trouble. In the past she’s taken money from the house to buy drugs. While Monique pretends it is just a sisterly visit, when Rachel asks about her trip up from Georgia and Monique says she went through out-of-the-way Tennessee, Rachel knows something bad is up and works to extract the secret.
This is a tightly structured drama that keeps its many layers together. Those layers cross geography, generations, family and sexual tensions, but playwright Grays gives us a full and convincing portrait of a family that works against great odds to stay together and give its members the support and tough love they need. The play also draws humor from those relationships and much joy from the African American milieu that the sisters and Sam carry up from Georgia. When Monique arrives, she commandeers the kitchen to make a giant Southern-style Christmas dinner. But her troubles, tied to addiction and debt, reveal themselves and strain the family’s ability to support one another. The highest stake is the future of Sam, Monique’s daughter. Aunt Rachel is devoted to keeping Sam safe and shielded from the family’s trauma as the troubles of Georgia invade the house in Brooklyn. The play unfolds with surprising tragic revelations and resolves in heart-wrenching and hopeful ways. With a strong dose of ambiguity to ponder, too.
“Last Night…” features a very strong ensemble cast, that under director Valerie Curtis-Newton creates the natural rhythms of a family where affection informs even the most strained practical and emotional negotiations. Actors Sydney Charles, Jessica Dean Turner, Ayanna Bria Bakari and Namir Smallwood each give us reasons to love and root for their characters and for their futures together. The night I saw the show, Monique’s daughter was touchingly and delightfully played by Kylah Renee Jones, a wizard at clapping games. The role will alternate between Jones and fellow young actor Aliyana Nicole.
“Last Night and the Night Before,” through May 14 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, steppenwolf.org.