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Theatre in Review: Good Grief (Vineyard Theatre)

Ngozi Anyanwu, Nmandi Asomugha. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Nkechi, the heroine of Ngozi Anyanwu's new play, is numbed by grief, stuck in her life, and unable to make up her mind about anything. As a result, it's hard to make up one's mind about her. Anyanwu has set herself a devilish dramatic puzzle -- Good Grief is the story of a young woman afraid to feel anything, lest she be consumed by the loss of her lover, killed in a freak accident -- and neither in writing nor in performance (she also plays the lead role) can she square this stubborn circle: One knows one should care about her plight, but one's sympathies remain entirely notional.

Nkechi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants living in Bucks County, is something of a conundrum: Smart, capable, funny, and earmarked for success, she is also oddly withdrawn, unattractively dressed, and unwilling to commit to much of anything. As the play begins, she confides to her friend MJ that she is planning to drop out of her "six-year, fast-track" pre-med program at Drexel University. "Maybe it's not what I want," she says, hesitantly. There's a tantalizing quality about the scene: The source of Nkechi's dissatisfaction proves elusive, and it isn't easy to tell if she and MJ are friends or lovers, especially when they begin kissing, seemingly experimentally. There is a sudden shift and Nkechi is appearing in a glitzy, WWF-style wrestling match. Another shift takes us to the moment when a neighbor arrives to tell Nkechi that MJ has been in an accident and is in the hospital, brain dead, and the time for goodbye is now.

But for Nkechi, farewells are impossible. The true setting of Good Grief is not the Pennsylvania suburbs but the interior of her head: She keeps dropping out the present, fading into fantasies or mulling over one moment or another with MJ, especially recalling how a best friendship became a love affair before tragedy struck. She's an absence rather than a presence, emotionally on the run, defined only by what she doesn't want, as the other characters -- all of them more memorably drawn -- come and go, trying to jolt her back to life. (As Nkechi confides to us, she isn't even sure she is remembering these events correctly.) Her parents all but command her to pull herself together. Her brother, in his offhand way, urges her to bare her feelings. JD, a high school acquaintance, would like to be her next boyfriend. But Nkechi is lost in a dream of the past. She is forever mentally stepping away from conversations in progress, drifting into the long ago or speaking to MJ's spirit, only to realize that she has totally lost track what is being said to her in the present.

Thus, the script consists of delaying tactics designed to keep Nkechi from reaching the inevitable moment when she must stare down her grief if she is to move forward. Anyanwu is a clever playwright -- possibly too clever for this material, as the play is always willing to head down another cul-de-sac, leaning so hard on bits of comic business that the agony at its heart is too often obscured. Sometimes, the jokes are on target: MJ, the slacker son of a single mother, can only afford to attend "BCCC, the Yale of community colleges." Fed up with her brother's intervention, she observes, "Excuse you. You have an associate's, in philosophy, online." Getting fed up with her mother's too-pious aphorisms, Nkechi says, warningly, "Did you just African proverb me?" "I got that one from Oprah," her mother replies.

But at other times, the playwright appears to be killing time, looking for yet another reason to avoid the only possible climax that this story can reach. Nkechi's parents figure in overly broad scenes of ethnic comedy seemingly drawn from another play altogether; this is especially true of a borderline ridiculous sequence in which the mother, NeNe, a psychiatric nurse, decides to practice a little homestyle analysis on her daughter. And, when in doubt, Anyanwu relies on easy gags featuring such 1990s cultural touchstones as Dean Cain and the TV series Clarissa Explains It All, Coach Carter, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Beyond the issue of struggling with grief, the play is afflicted with a fetishization of youth that becomes tiresome; Nkechi often wonders, unironically, where the time is going -- she is, roughly, twenty -- and a scene in which Anyanwu and Ian Quinlan play Nkechi and MJ as grade-schoolers is pretty cloying stuff. I don't know if Good Grief is autobiographical, but at times the playwright seems to be struggling to find drama in an unexceptional upbringing, a problem exacerbated by the script's constant shying away from its sole dramatic event.

Still, Ian Quinlan is gifted with an easy, sideways charm that helps one understand why Nkechi holds on to MJ's memory, and Hunter Parrish is equally effective as the young man who would replace MJ in Nkechi's heart. (Quinlan does especially well with a scene in which MJ recalls tracking down his lost father only to discover, to his dismay, that the man has no feeling for him at all.) Nnamdi Asomugha has a delightfully light touch as her brother, and if Oberon K. A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes have been encouraged by the director, Awoye Timpo, to ham it up, they do bring real warmth and authority to their characters. Lisa Ramirez does her considerable best as MJ's mother, railing, rather melodramatically, at an indifferent universe.

Timpo has obtained fine work from the production's design team. Jason Ardizzone-West's set, a two-level affair with sliding panels of what looks like pegboard, is a fine representation of the play's landscape of the mind, especially as sensitively and alluringly lit by Oona Curley, who makes excellent use of chiaroscuro and sidelight effects. Andy Jean's costumes effectively contrast the styles of two generations. Daniel Kluger's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Joy Ike's melancholy original music, along with such effects as birdsong, car engines, music from a boom box, and someone sobbing.

Anyanwu, the actress, is in the same fix as Anyanwu, the playwright -- clearly talented but without a clear way forward to make dramatic sense of Nkechi's troubles. In its final stretch, Good Grief proves to be mildly touching -- but, really, one should be devastated by the sight of a gifted, well-loved young woman coming face-to-face, for the first time, with irreparable loss. It's a moment that, arguably, might color the rest of her life, and it could have made for high drama, had Nkechi seemed more than a mass of undefined possibilities. -- David Barbour

(31 October 2018)

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