Let me go ahead and get this out of my system: “November: Philadelphia County.”
“The First Deep Breath,” the marvelously ambitious new family drama that opened Friday night at Victory Gardens, is bound to be compared to “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ similarly sprawling saga that became a Broadway phenomenon and a Pulitzer Prize winner after premiering at Steppenwolf a dozen years ago.
At times, “Breath” playwright Lee Edward Colston II and director Steve H. Broadnax III seem to be inviting comparisons to Letts’ momentous drama: in the new play’s three-act, three-and-a-half-hour structure; in scenic designer Regina García’s tri-level home squeezed into the frame of Victory Gardens’ stage, recalling Todd Rosenthal’s “August” set; in ending the middle act on a fraught family dinner replete with vicious truth-telling.
Victory Gardens’ own press materials encourage such thoughts — the theater’s artistic director, Chay Yew, goes so far as to position Colston’s work “in the tradition of August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill and Tracy Letts.” I might throw Lillian Hellman into that lineup, too.
Yew is too savvy a producer to put expectations like that onto a play that can’t live up to them. Because here’s the thing: “The First Deep Breath” earns that kind of talk.
“Breath” begins with a sermon, delivered by Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III (David Alan Anderson) at what we soon learn is the funeral of his own daughter, Diane. The Jones family, we gather, is having a particularly rough moment; the pastor references his wife’s illness and a son who stands accused of a horrific crime.
But though we see him struggling, he preaches the story of Jesus calming the storm, saying “Peace, be still.” We must have the faith to calm our internal storms, Pastor Jones tells his congregation. It’s little surprise to learn how poorly he practices what he preaches.
Following that prologue, Colston jumps ahead six years to the Jones family home in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. It’s days before Thanksgiving, and the family is gearing up for two emotionally taxing events: a special service at the church to mark the anniversary of Diane’s death, and the release on parole of “Little Al,” or Albert Melvin Jones IV (Clinton Lowe), who’s spent the last six years in lockup for a crime he maintains he didn’t commit. Oh, and he’s now going by Abdul-Malik.
Albert the elder is none too happy to see his son come home. Daughter Dee-Dee (Melanie Loren) — Diane’s identical twin — is withering in the shadow of her departed sister, whose ashes are given such prominent placement in the family home that you can apply Chekhov’s rule about guns to her urn.
Youngest child AJ (Patrick Agada) is a high school senior applying to colleges, but you can tell right away that he doesn’t share his father’s enthusiasm for the idea that he’ll someday take over his father’s pulpit. In fact, each of the Jones children has a secret they’re keeping from the rest of the family, out of fear of their father’s rigid judgment. And mother Ruth (Celeste Williams) is losing her faculties to Alzheimer’s, to the point that she now frequently addresses Dee-Dee by her dead twin’s name.
To reveal much more of the plot would be criminal; this is the kind of densely woven narrative in which Colston paces his reveals so as to keep you guessing well into the third act. (I’m compelled to mention one more actor, though: Deanna Reed-Foster, as Ruth’s put-upon sister, Pearl, delivers a masterful third-act speech whose content I can’t describe for spoiler reasons, but which garnered the most deservedly sustained exit applause in recent memory.)
The childhood-home-as-torture-chamber chronicle isn’t new to the American stage. But Colston’s achievement is in making it specific to the African American experience — he traces certain dysfunctions of the Black church and respectability politics back to the beginning of the slave trade — and in his radiantly evident sense of empathy.
Colston’s characters get to talk about self-healing in a way that — somehow, miraculously — doesn’t sound like the platitudes of the self-help shelf. No one is guiltless and no one is absolved, but progress is messily made. And as passionately performed by a powerhouse ensemble in Victory Gardens’ bracing premiere, “Breath” feels like the kind of theatrical event you’ll want to be able to say you saw first.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.
Editor’s note: Victory Gardens Theater’s website advisory: “The First Deep Breath” contains mature themes including, but not limited to: violence, sexual content, discussions of sexual violence and explicit language.