Review | In Round House premiere of ‘Nine Night,’ mourning becomes electric

Under the circumstances, we would all get chile pepper in our eyes.

A central character named Lorraine suffers that painful indignity early on in Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” now receiving its American premiere from Round House Theatre. The kitchen-mishap scene in some ways encapsulates the achievements of this play, a moving, insightful, sometimes funny depiction of grief and family tension, set before, and during, a festive multiday wake thrown by a British-Jamaican family.

The first play by a Black British female playwright to be produced in London’s West End, “Nine Night” excels at showing how grief and family division can seep into prosaic chores and ostensibly minor exchanges. As she stands in a London kitchen making soup for her dying mother, the exhausted Lorraine has to cope with squabbling relatives, all with their own agendas. It’s no wonder that a smidgen of pepper winds up in her eye while she’s furiously chopping.

In director Timothy Douglas’s engrossing production for Round House, the marvelous Lilian Oben makes Lorraine the soul of “Nine Night.” Her voice strained, her face and movement radiating numbed determination, Lorraine tramps around in humdrum house clothes, having, as a caregiver, put vanity on hold, and trying to do the same with emotion. She’s a heartbreaking presence in her mother’s fussily decorative home, rendered in stunning realistic detail by scenic designer Tim Mackabee. (April Hickman designed the telling costumes.)

The place fills up with Lorraine’s extended family, each of whom comes poignantly into focus at some point, with help from the terrific cast. Most vividly entertaining is the exuberant Maggie (a hilarious Kim Bey), who, like the expansive Trudy (Joy DeMichelle), has firm ideas about traditional Jamaican mourning rituals. (A couple of the characters talk in a patois-inflected English whose meaning will be clear even to audiences unused to the dialect.)

Lorraine’s status-conscious brother, Robert (Avery Glymph), bickers with his niece Anita (Kaitlyn Boyer) and cozies up to the well-off Vince (a pitch-perfect Doug Brown). Meanwhile, Robert’s nervous wife, Sophie (Katie DeBuys), who, as a person not of Jamaican heritage, is anxious about fitting in and tries to teach Lorraine yoga-style breathing before confessing a momentous secret.

The scenes play out with great naturalism, the characters’ idiosyncratic preoccupations, affinities, weaknesses and resentments surging by turns to the fore. Then the variegated canvas concentrates and streamlines, to deliver a dramatic showdown and denouement.

In that early cooking scene, when asked why she’s bothering to make a purportedly cancer-fighting soup for an obviously terminally ill person, Lorraine retorts, “I’m not just going to write her off, am I?” In the play’s conclusion, the love and fierceness in that remark ultimately beget a hugely affecting catharsis.

Nine Night, by Natasha Gordon. Directed by Timothy Douglas; lighting, Harold Burgess II; sound, Matthew Nielson; properties coordinator, Tim Jones; fight choreographer, Casey Kaleba; movement coordinator, Catherine Foster. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. $46 to $81. Through Oct. 9 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100.

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