Plays in which family secrets are tragically revealed are nothing new – Oedipus and his mom were shocking audiences back as far as 429 BCE. In the U.S., the 500 lb. gorilla of this genre would be Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the most influential of recent plays of this type is Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Playwright Lee Edward Colston II seems to have taken County as a stylistic inspiration for his play The First Deep Breath, which focuses on the many secrets that come out during a large family gathering. There is a lot to like about the Geffen Playhouse’s production, from a superb ensemble to Colston’s skill for humorous dialogue and dramatic moments, but unfortunately it’s also an overstuffed play and at its current running time of four hours it could perhaps use some judicious trimming.
The African-American Jones family is gathering in their Philadelphia home for Thanksgiving. Patriarch Albert (Herb Newsome) is planning to announce the formation of a new megachurch at the holiday dinner, while matriarch Ruth (Ella Joyce), debilitated by Alzheimer’s, spends much of her time living in the past. Ruth’s sister Pearl (Deanna Reed-Foster) works as her caretaker but also watches over the entire family. Daughter Dee-Dee (Candace Thomas) and her secret fiancé Leslie (Brandon Mendez Homer) are trying to decide when the best time might be to tell her family, and youngest son AJ (Opa Adeyemo) is playing a lot of basketball, although no one has ever seen him play in a game. The biggest news, however, is the return of eldest son Abdul-Malik (Colston) from six years spent in prison. Everyone has their secrets, and very soon this unsteady stability will explode.
Newsome does a nice job contrasting Albert’s pious surface with his more complicated interior, and he’s appropriately fierce in some confrontation scenes. Reed-Foster’s sharp comedic skills are on display throughout, but she also delivers deep emotion in dramatic sequences. Thomas gives a strong performance as the peacekeeper of the family, and Homer is charming and sincere as her intended spouse. Adeyemo does terrific, detailed work as the confused AJ, and Keith A. Wallace is able to convincingly sell a lot of moralizing speeches as his older friend Tyree. Colston is good but perhaps not quite at the quality level of the rest of the ensemble – he doesn’t completely convince as the complicated ex-con. Finally, Joyce steals the show as Ruth, switching from sweetness to cruelty and past to present seamlessly within scenes in a truly impressive portrayal that elicits both heartbreak and horror.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III gets great work from his cast, and he paces everything swiftly, so even though it’s a long play, it moves right along. Michael Carnahan’s two-story luxury home set is impressive, filling every inch of the Geffen stage space. Colston clearly has a lot of talent as a writer, and a lot of the play works very well. Humor is abundant, as in a hilarious moment in which both Leslie and Albert innocently respond to Dee-Dee’s greeting of “Hey, daddy.” He’s also very skilled with big dramatic conflict scenes, with some moments drawing audible gasps of shock from the audience. However, there’s so much plot in the show that it becomes borderline silly; everyone has a secret that must be dealt with. There are so many reveals done by someone walking through a door at the wrong moment that it’s almost as if we’re watching a serious farce – Noises Off with trauma instead of sardines.
And yet for all that, The First Deep Breath is entertaining and well-acted. Colston is very much a talent to watch, and the Geffen Playhouse is to be applauded for giving his talent such a fine spotlight.
The First Deep Breath is presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse and plays through March 5th, 2023. Tickets are available here.