All in the Family

Samm-Art Williams, whose 1980 Tony-nominated play Home is now a classic of African-American theater, returns to playwriting after a decades-long absence with The Waiting Room, a saucy comedy of manners about racial identity and its fault lines. Over the course of one day, one person after the next in a hospital waiting room in a rural community in North Carolina discovers startling news about whom they are related to. Williams teases out the comic possibilities from this increasingly implausible premise while making a none too subtle statement about the dubious basis for all color and class distinctions. Add freewheeling banter, waggish humor, and sexual capers, and you have the frothy results.

The Waiting Room opens with the declaration by Riley Innes (Michael Chenevert), whose father has been hospitalized following a heart attack, that a waiting room is "the most vicious truth serum ever known to man." The serum is delivered by Riley's garrulous Uncle Patrick (Ed Wheeler), who prides himself on being a truth teller.

Patrick's first victim is Rachael (Messeret Stroman), a young mother who has brought her baby in for tests: he blurts out to her that her birth mother is, in fact, her mother's sister. The Innis family's secret, divulged in the first act's closing seconds, will startle few audience members, but it allows Williams in the second act to dramatize the angst and reappraisals that the disclosure triggers. By the conclusion, everyone's comfortable notions of family and identity have been upended, leading Riley to declare with justifiable exasperation, "Do any of us in this entire country know who we really are?"

Williams has a fine-tuned ear for the black vernacular, especially as it applies to "cattin' around," as Patrick's sister describes his behavior with the voluptuous Cookie (Ebony Jo-Ann), an aging country woman whose sister is in the hospital. "Lots of sparks left in this old furnace," says Cookie, who slathers herself with motor oil to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

The six black cast members deliver uniformly strong performances. Wheeler brings great brio to the role of Patrick, the twice-divorced, silver-tongued tobacco farmer and proud Republican. Chenevert nails the more complicated role of Riley, who is forced to examine his deeply held assumptions about what it means to be a middle-class black man in the American South. Jo-Ann endows Cookie with just the right mix of vim and emotionality.

By contrast, the two white cast members, Ron Millke and David Cochrane, come off as stiff and uncomfortable in their roles as Gordon MacInnes and his son. This failure is not entirely their fault, since their characters seem the least developed and most implausible. Gordon proudly wears a Confederate flag T-shirt even as he voices beliefs and values alien to a conservative Southerner, while his son, Riley's old schoolmate, remains a cipher.

A play that unfolds in a hospital waiting room runs the danger of being static, but director Charles Weldon, through skillful blocking of the actors and precise timing with the laugh lines, maintains a snappy pace.

The design team does serviceable work. Almost all the action takes place in the room, which George Corrin has made suitably institutional. The costumes, lighting, and sound unobtrusively contribute to the aura of realism.

The Waiting Room, just like Home in its original 1979 incarnation, has been staged by the Negro Ensemble Company, the august 40-year-old theater troupe that in its early life provided one of the few outlets for black theater artists. This new production marks a welcome homecoming to the theater for Williams. I hope he sticks around this time.

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