Plays with a dysfunctional family theme have been part of the theatrical landscape going as far back to the ancient Greeks who spawned a number of compelling playwrights including Sophocles, who among his other plays, wrote “Oedipus at Colonus. ” There is a long list of family-anchored plays, such as Neil Simon’s dramady Brighton Beach Memoirs. Other family dramas whose theme deals with family dysfunction include, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing!” and John Guare’s black comedy House of Blue Leaves. Arthur Miller’s seminal body of works of this genre include: A View from the Bridge, All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and like Tracy Letts’s brilliant August: Osage County, and Miller’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, The First Deep Breath by Lee Edward Colston II earns a definitive place with these historic and enduring great American plays.
Brilliantly directed by Steve H. Broadnax III and performed on an exquisite multi-level set by Scenic Designer Michael Carnahan, Act I kicks off with a long fire and brimstone monologue delivered by Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III, (Herb Newsome.) Most of the sermon is devoted to the death of his daughter Diane, the child with whom he felt closest. Very shortly thereafter, we begin to meet the various members of the Jones family including Dee-Dee Jones, nicely played by Candace Thomas. She is with her brother AJ, beautifully characterized by Opa Adeyemo, who skillfully mines the multiple layers of his character. He is living a duplicitous life of which the family is totally unaware. AJ is a senior in high school and the family, especially his father, believes that he is applying to a seminary so he can train as a preacher and join him in ministering the church, which is about to expand in its size and scope.
This important addition to the neighborhood comes under closer scrutiny later on in the play. AJ tells the family that he’s gotten a full scholarship to Harvard, Temple University, and UCLA but when he receives a letter, doesn’t want to open it in front of the family. Dee-Dee has her own secret as she is engaged to Leslie Carter (Brandon Mendez Homer) but has her reasons for not telling the family about the status of their relationship. Aunt Pearl, who provides comic relief throughout Acts I and 2 is fabulously played by Deanna Reed-Foster. She lives in the Jones house and is the glue that keeps everything together. She cooks fabulous meals, cleans and is the primary caretaker for her sister Ruth, rivetingly performed by Ella Joyce. Ruth is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and is suffering memory loss, especially about the death of her daughter who she fully expects to show up for Thanksgiving dinner. She does have lucid moments from time to time, one of which is quite unexpected and targeted. The way the character is written, and without taking anything away from the actor playing Ruth, there are similarities between her characterization and Florence Eldridge’s award-winning performance as Mary Cavan Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The next family member to arrive home is Albert Melvin Jones IV, fascinatingly performed by the playwright himself. Al has just completed a prison sentence for a crime he may or may not have committed and the truth will be revealed in the dynamic Act 3. During his difficult stay in prison, he converted to Islam and chose a new name, Abdul-Malik, and began to write poetry. He is not welcomed home by his dad who insists he remove his skull cap. Pastor Jones is unrelenting in his criticisms of his son and is tough on the whole family. In a scathing moment, he tells Al, “You are my shame.” Secrets abound in this exquisitely written play, especially one between Al and his childhood friend Tyree, well performed by Keith A. Wallace. The play is filled with memorable lines such as Al to Tyree: “You are my favorite poem,” or by Ruth in a lucid moment at the Thanksgiving table which, after ruminating about being married for 37 years, she declares “Don’t kill him unless you have help hiding the body.” Acts 1 and 2 takes us through the life and times of this family and their personal challenges, culminating in the third act shocking revelations.
The fully actualized performances in THE FIRST DEEP BREATH don’t just materialize on their own. Highly skilled, sensitive director Broadnax III guided this talented cast to present the best possible performances. Also under his guidance is the incredible technical team which includes: Costume Designer Eduardo Castro; Sound Designer Curtis Craig, who composed a lively sound track based on Composer Rashad McPherson’s music; Fight Director Steve Rankin who staged the realistic fight scenes; and Choreographer DJ Smart. A big shout-out to Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago who creatively enhanced the unfolding action and covered the transitions between scenes with vibrant shades of blues, greens, and reds which cast a colorful wash across the stage.
This is a three-act play with two intermissions and I will tell you each act is as strong as the previous one and leads us through this complicated family dynamic which will ultimately reveals shocking surprises you had no idea were coming. And, that’s about all I’m going to say other than get your tickets to this perfect theatrical presentation and fasten your seat belts for a bumpy, and sometimes funny ride awaiting you.
THE FIRST DEEP BREATH
Gil Cates Theatre
The Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Written by Lee Edward Colston II
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III
Tuesday – Friday: 7:30 pm
Saturday: & Sunday: 1:00 pm & 7:00 pm
Closing: Sunday, March 5, 2023
Running Time: 3 hours and 45 minutes,
including two intermissions.
Tickets: $39 – $129
.Strobe Lighting Effects • Herbal Cigarette Smoke • Theatrical Haze and Smoke Effects
.Content Advisory: This production contains profanity, sexual themes,
staged combat, and adult subject matter.