Last Night and the Night Before

(Left to right) Sydney Charles and Aliyana Nicole in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of "Last Night and the Night Before."

Loving relationships in serious peril, poor parenting, sibling rivalry and lots of guilt are packed into the two-plus hours of Donnetta Lavinia Grays' densely plotted, intensely emotional “Last Night and the Night Before,” which is enjoying a well-acted Chicago premiere directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre.

Taking its name from one of the hand-clapping games played to alleviate stress and find comfort by the pre-adolescent girl at its center, the dysfunctional family drama unfolds something like a mystery. It moves back and forth in time and place from the present to 14 or 15 years ago and from a Brooklyn brownstone to Vixten, a town in rural Georgia. Add the fact that a key character is an addict and a liar, and following what's happening can be difficult, especially since some of the actors speak with accents that are hard to understand or even hear.

The play opens in near darkness with a man in silhouette digging a hole in the ground and eventually rolling a human body wrapped in fabric into it. We don't know who the man is, or where or when this is taking place, and we won't find out until much later. The identity of the body also remains unknown, as do the circumstances of his or her death, though they eventually are revealed and involve an essential secret.

Following this prologue, the morning sun rises on 10-year-old Sam (Kylah Renee Jones on opening night, alternating with Aliyana Nicole) playing on a Brooklyn stoop. She's soon joined by her 20-something mother Monique (Ayanna Bria Bakari), who is paying a surprise visit to her older sister Rachel (Sydney Charles) and Rachel's partner Nadima (Jessica Dean Turner).

The situation is tense from the start, mainly because Nadima resents the ways Monique has taken advantage of Rachel in the past (by borrowing money and so forth) and is convinced she'll do it again, while Rachel is willing to bend over backwards to trust and help her little sister, partly because she feels guilty she wasn't there for her when they were younger.

As it turns out, Nadima is right. Monique not only begs Rachel to let her stay a few days, concocting a story about how her uncaring husband Reggie (Namir Smallwood) lost his job at the factory and ran off with another woman, she then goes off herself, abandoning Sam with her aunt. Later Reggie shows up looking for Monique with an entirely different story and, by this time, a distraught Sam, on the cusp of womanhood, is angry with both her parents.

These scenes alternate with affectionate past encounters between 14-year-old Monique, a would-be poet pregnant with Sam, and Reggie, who is a few years older and plans for their future together. There is also a near-present scene in which Reggie takes an amusing stab at teaching Sam about the birds and the bees. How — and more especially why — things go so wrong for Monique remains a bit murky, but I think we're supposed to feel sympathy for her, if nothing else because Bakari's high-strung performance makes her seem somewhat touched in the head.

Alas, I just found Monique irresponsible and reprehensible. She not only screws up her own life but also the lives of everyone around her, and it doesn't really matter whether or not she loves them or cares only about herself. As for Rachel, she would have been better off getting her sister more professional help for her addiction and psychological problems, which might have saved her relationship with Nadima. Reggie comes across as a thoroughly decent person (Smallwood is underutilized in the role) and gets shafted for it.

The upshot, amid a lot of symbolism and poetic language, is that Sam has a brighter future because of the love of her family. I know I should care, but I really didn't.

I'm not sure why. Maybe because the plot is confusing and figuring it out took all my attention. Also, the staging — scenic design by Regina Garcia, costumes by Izumi Inaba, lighting by Mary Louise Geiger, sound by Larry Fowler — wasn't illuminating. The floor plan of the brownstone didn't make sense, and neither did the location of the stoop with respect to the interior. Distinguishing between Brooklyn and Vixten was a problem, too, and the lighting and costumes did little to differentiate between past and present.

“Last Night and the Night Before” is a powerful drama, but it suffers from a lack of clarity in several respects.

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