Death hovers over Make it So from start to finish. Edward Miller’s fractured Southern family drama conjures up the works of such luminaries as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, but pedestrian, under-stuffed plotting and an unpolished production directed by Sharon Fogarty sadly prevent it from hitting such a stride at the Theater for the New City. Walter Morgan is the unseen patriarch of a blended black family in Memphis. The problem is, his five children born from two wives, Mary and Bertha (Beverly Bonner) never blended together successfully. They reunite following the death of Mary, Walter’s first wife, with whom he fathered eldest son Lester (Leonard Dozier), a publishing executive who has returned from Manhattan.
Lester’s half-siblings Charlotte (Althea Alexis) and Justin (Nnamudi Amobi), both grown adults, still live with their surly mother, Bertha, as she nurses their father. Death, it seems, is imminent for him as well; Walter is in the last stages of ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Bertha has gone through a string of hospice nurses, of whom Jasmine Crothers (Kelly Jo Reid) is the most recent.
Miller spends the better part of the first act introducing his characters and setting up their relationships with one another, rather than setting up conflicts to escalate. As a result, one has no idea where the play is supposed to go (and one wonders if Make It So could use some further structural tinkering). With little ado, Lester and Jasmine become a smitten couple, and Lester seeks out one of his AWOL younger blood siblings.
Said brother Anthony (Milan Conner) has lost touch with the family due to his mother Bertha's and Walter’s apparent shared disapproval of his gay lifestyle. Furthering the distance between them is the fact that Anthony works as a drag performer at a nearby club (in a humorous touch, the club is called Verfangen Mit Hosen Unten, which translates to “caught with one’s pants down”) run by his partner, Tyler (Adam R. Deremer).
Miller should introduce Anthony far earlier into the play. He is a more significant character than Charlotte and Justin. Additionally, the storyline involving Belinda (Georgia Sothern), the floozy who carries on with Justin, is an overly throwaway storyline. It runs too comical in comparison to the rest of the show. As a result, the waiting game Make It So plays until Anthony’s entrance registers as little more than expository filler.
The same can be said for Bertha, whose monstrous ways and vindictive resentment do not truly surface until the second act. Bertha has problems with all of Walter’s children from his first marriage, but really goes off the deep end when she sees them taking off with Jasmine and Tyler, both of whom are white. This opens the play up to all sorts of racial, sexual and socioeconomic issues, but Miller sidesteps them in favor of redundant sitcom-level clichés involving the same fighting family members again and again.
Little is learned from one scene before the audience witnesses it rehashed again five to ten minutes later. As the fighting wages on, Bertha emerges as increasingly bitter, with Miller saving a touching breakdown scene for far too late in the play. But this keeps her two-dimensionally unlikable for far too long, and it renders the show dramatically inert right when it should be percolating the most.
It is possible that in later performances Make It So will be less clunky. As it is, though, some of Fogarty’s cast seems to still be going through the motions. Some of Bonner’s line readings felt a little off, and at times Dozier and Amobi felt as though they were still merely trying to remember lines they had memorized. Alexis, on the other hand, demonstrated much more potential than these cast mates; it is a shame that Miller could not make Charlotte a more substantial presence. As it stands, she merely exists to welcome her siblings home with a hug. Additionally, having cast actors who appear to be in their mid-to-late twenties to play characters roughly ten years their senior undercuts the state of arrested development in which we should find these overgrown children.
There are some bright lights among the ensemble. Conner and Deremer are easily the best thing about Make It So. Conner is quite sympathetic as the ostracized son, and Deremer offers a sense of genuine sweetness lacking from the Morgan family. Together, the two share the play’s purest relationship. Reid and Sothern also do fine work in their more skeletal roles.
That’s the biggest problem with all of Make It So: it needs more meat on it. As it stands now, this meal is just too lean for its own good.