The homey set for Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night (★★★☆☆) looks as lived-in as any house you’re likely to see onstage. Clearly, many lives connect under this roof, inside the comfy, middle-class London home of Jamaican matriarch Gloria.
The deeply-built set of Gloria’s living room, kitchen, and foyer, designed by Tim Mackabee, is dense with detail and decorated to within an inch of its linoleum-floored life with mismatched furniture, family photos, plants, and knickknacks.
It’s over-decorated, for sure, but we can well imagine that the abundance — clutter to some — is exactly as Gloria would have wanted it. There’s that much personality and history imparted by the space.
Among the able cast, a few performances in Round House’s production similarly lean towards over-decoration and loud emphasis, but don’t register that same depth of character.
The parade of family members in and out of Gloria’s house over the course of the play are meant to be a loud, sometimes taxing bunch, and the players find a reliable collective comic rhythm.
But it’s the calm in the midst of the storm — Gloria’s adult daughter, Lorraine — who draws attention, and who, in Lilian Oben’s galvanizing performance, feels achingly true and knowable. Oben does more with a glance, pause, or terse “Hmph” than others manage with a lot of hand-waving hamminess.
After grandma Gloria expires unseen upstairs in her bed, stoically grief-stricken Lorraine, recently made a grandmother herself, tends to all the necessary arrangements, and stays busy taking care of the house and everyone in it.
That includes Lorraine’s bohemian daughter Anita (Kaitlyn Boyer), and Gloria’s dear cousin Maggie (Kim Bey) and Maggie’s husband, Vince (Doug Brown), “Auntie” and “Uncle” to their juniors. They all throw themselves into making preparations for the traditional nine-night gathering of family and mourners to celebrate the life of their loved one before sending them off to the afterlife.
Lorraine spends much of the week trying to summon her mother’s spirit to her. But Gloria is here, others insist at various moments. Without speaking it, Lorraine conveys that she lacks a sense of resolution that apparently can only be granted by some understanding of her mother that she needs to feel or discover.
Oben inhabits Lorraine’s space of quiet desperation profoundly, turning her lonesome pursuit of catharsis into a simmering drama of unspoken angst mixed with cutting comebacks. All around her, other family members search for their individual points of resolution, but towards targets less defined or compelling.
Lorraine’s brother Robert (Avery Glymph) does the bare minimum of showing up to help with the festivities, though he’s very present in his striving to be an entrepreneur of some kind. His personal issues, beyond being a certain amount of selfish and irresponsible, are vague, as are whatever issues are clouding his marriage to Sophie (Katie DeBuys).
Her issues also are vaguely rendered, though DeBuys beautifully puts across Sophie’s heartfelt affinity for late mother-in-law Gloria. In the expert hands of Bey, Auntie Maggie is well-delineated as a loving, occasionally petty busy-body, and a potent comic foil for all, especially Brown’s genial Vince. But they, too, seem vaguely involved in marital tension that doesn’t pull its dramatic weight.
What matters, ultimately, is what passes between Lorraine and Gloria. Director Timothy Douglas guides the play there at an agreeable pace, steering smoothly in and out of some sticky emotional moments to arrive at a satisfying conclusion earned by Oben’s touching performance onstage and the vividly imagined presence off-stage of the lady of the house.
Nine Night runs through Oct. 9 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $46 to $81, with several discount options available, including 2-For-1 Tuesday. Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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