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Review: Steppenwolf Theatre's 'Familiar' a masterpiece

When Luigi Sottile’s character, Brad, delivers his perfectly timed, facially expressive “WHAAAATT?” I knew we had a first-rate comedy on our hands. When Cedric Young (Donald) and Ora Jones (Marvelous) delivered their poignant monologues about leaving the ghosts of yesterday, I immediately switched to the refrain of “it’s a drama.”

Perhaps unpeggable in a category, the well-written “Familiar” best can be described as a dramedy. Playwright Danai Gurira is an expert.

Directed brilliantly by Danya Taylor, Steppenwolf’s latest production unfolds a multilayered story of a Zimbabwean-American family preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter.

Resplendent with visiting and unexpected relatives, pre-wedding stress segues into a full family feud. And as Erik Hellman’s character, Christopher, the future groom, states, “I get it ... family ... everyone has one.”

Believe me, the audience sighs with reflective acceptance after that line.

The highly committed ensemble never fails to captivate the entire time the cast is onstage.

Young is the father, Donald, the affable, quiet lion in the background. Every time he escapes into the study, I wish he had more time onstage, but he more than makes up for it in the tightly paced Act 2.

The same can be said about the nuanced Erik Hellman, who is underused until Act 2, and then he just shines. Celeste M. Cooper is perfectly and joyously cast as Nyasha, the younger sister often in conflict with her mother. She’s the free spirit of the family and has two deliciously funny scenes with Sottile’s Brad. Her sweet, mesmerizing song also gives the piece its title.

Jacqueline Williams marvelously brings Auntie Maggie to life as the gentle, supportive but conflicted woman who still is trying to get her life on track. Cheryl Lynn Bruce is the intense, disruptive Auntie Anne-Mai, who insists on the traditional Roora bride price ritual.

Bruce delivers the unexpected gut-punching surprise that almost derails the entire wedding. No animus; just a focus on the truth. And wounds.

Lanise Antoine Shelley is Tendikayi, the conventional lawyer and “happy, clappy churchgoer” and bride-to-be who has to survive all of this. Shelley more than rises to the occasion.

But it is the work of two of my favorite Chicago actors that defines “Familiar.” Veteran Steppenwolf actor Ora Jones is the regal, ramrod straight, iron-willed mother, Marvelous. Jones commands and lights up the stage, and as always, she is fascinating.

Sottile is the very energetic Brad, who is fresh out of the military. He is the master of subtle facials and interventions, and delivers some of “Familiar’s” best lines with exquisite timing. His chemistry with Cooper is particularly evident; Sottile is fresh and real.

Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene’s costume designs are beautiful extensions of all the characters. Kristen Robinson’s knockout, move-in-ready home scenic design reinforces the status of the family.

“Familiar” is an engaging celebration of healing, generations and the preservation of cultures and traditions. It’s a very human story that also speaks well to the heart and possibility of always building new futures. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a happily working actress and director. A veteran of plays, radio and film, she is a retired Raue Center for the Arts board member, a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and currently serves on the IT’S SHOWTIME and RCLPC Theater boards. She is a retired Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 special educator and 2018 Woman of Distinction.

“Familiar” – Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

When: Through Jan. 13

Where: Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 Halsted St., Chicago

Tickets: $20 to 109

Info: or 312-335-1650

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