Family drama ‘Last Night and the Night Before’ gets the audience thinking, and rethinking

The truth about two star-crossed sisters emerges slowly in Steppenwolf’s intensely plotted production.

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(left to right) Sydney Charles and Ayanna Bria Bakari in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Last Night and the Night Before by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, running now through May 14, 2023.

New Yorker Rachel (Sydney Charles, left) gets an unexpected visit by her sister, Monique (Ayanna Bria Bakari), from Georgia in “Last Night and the Night Before”

Michael Brosilow.

In Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ intensely plotted family drama “Last Night and the Night Before,” cracks between siblings, parents, children and partners become fractures, then fissures and, ultimately, abysses as deep and wide as the River Jordan. But as the chasms grow ever larger, so does the love binding those on opposite sides. So do the lengths they will travel to save each other.

Grays scripts those lengths into a journey that constantly demands the audience rethink what they believe is true about two very different sisters. As in all families, there are lies and betrayals and crucially missing information that shows up only in increments.

Director Valerie Curtis-Newton’s staging for Steppenwolf moves from rural Georgia to a well-appointed Brooklyn brownstone, churning through a journey of addiction, murder, abandonment and contentious sibling rivalries as it goes. The rudder of the blood blond never falters — even when the actions in Grays’ corkscrewing plot-twister definitely seem to indicate otherwise.

‘Last Night and the Night Before’

Untitled

Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

When: Through May 14

Tickets: $20- $88

Run time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Info: steppenwolf.org

“Last Night” begins with Monique (Ayanna Bria Bakari) arriving unannounced at her sister Rachel’s (Sydney Charles) New York home. Monique has fled her own home in the Deep South home, her 11-year-old daughter Sam (Kylah Renee Jones opening night; Aliyana Nicole alternates in the role) in tow.

Their arrival throws Rachel and her partner Nadima (Jessica Dean Turner) into crisis. Monique explains her husband Reggie (Namir Smallwood) left them after he lost his job when the plant in town closed down. Sam later reveals there was a note stuck to their door shortly before they left, leaving Rachel (and the audience) to conclude there was an eviction in the works.

But the full story of their departure is more complex. It’s also only gradually revealed, and with it, the deeply human, deeply embedded flaws of a family that truly understands that family is — or at least is supposed to be — the one group of humans you can always turn to whether you’re debilitated by addiction or a broken heart, or simply so broken you can’t afford to care for your kid, never mind yourself.

A few edits would turn the production from intense storm to awe-inspiring whirlwind. But as it plays out through an ensemble near the height of its collective power, “Last Night and the Night Before” is stuff strong enough to make you laugh, cry and remain engaged throughout.

Much of that is due to Bakari’s Monique and Smallwood’s Reggie, who together create a pair of lovers as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet, although it isn’t their parents who force them to dire extremes. They’re both as believably flawed as they are heroic. We see Bakari in flashback at 15, pregnant with Sam, radiant with happiness as she and 16-year-old Reggie dance together under the Georgia stars.

What we see of Reggie in both flashback and the present — he’s a doting father who teaches Sam the storytelling language of “Miss Mary Mack”-style hand games woven through the story and into the title — doesn’t match up with Monique’s tale of being abandoned.

But Monique is no drug-addled liar. Almost everything she sacrifices and does — save desperate trips to score — is methodically planned with Reggie for the betterment and care of Sam. In Grays’ final, devastating twist, we see two parents so devoted they’ll use any means necessary to protect a child who would do the same to protect them. It’s powerful.

The collateral damage is significant: Nadima, who brooks no nonsense and quickly exposes Monique’s many lies, bitterly points out that Rachel has spent “$4,000 and counting” over the years digging her sister out of various crises. Nadima’s anguish at being forced to choose between raising a child or losing the partner (who had previously, firmly agreed on a relationship and a life with no kids) is brutal to witness.

LNNB_13._Photo_by_Michael_Brosilow.jpg

Kylah Renee Jones (right, with Sydney Charles) alternates with Aliyana Nicole in the role of 11-year old Sam.

Michael Brosilow

At the alternately bursting and devastated heart of the play is Sam, on the cusp of puberty and completely in the dark as to why her mother took them from Georgia to New York (via Tennessee, a crucial plot point that seems like a throwaway line initially) in the dead of the night, leaving behind everything they owned and loved, including her father.

It’s a role as heavy as it is innocent, and Jones captures both the intense willingness to please that defines some children while also giving voice to her rage at being in the dark and without control over the monumental decisions being made about her life and her family.

In addition to being solid drama, “Last Night and the Night Before” is a lesson in withholding judgment until you have all the information about the people you’re judging — especially family.


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