Sha Cage is wonderful in Danai Gurira’s Familiar at Guthrie Theater. Broadening an already remarkable range, the veteran actor fascinates from the moment she steps on the stage, starring as brightly hopeful bride Tendi, caught in the crosshairs of a cultural mishap targeting her happiness.
Ironically, it isn’t so much that she’s bringing a White husband into her African family that troubles her tranquility, but the surprising truth of her actual identity. Cage, superb as ever, brings distinct dimension, not carrying over so much as a mannerism from previous roles.
In fact, overall, the quite capable cast, guided by Taibi Magar’s brisk hand virtually choreographing the ensemble, execute a tight, entertaining turn. But the play can’t hold up, weighed down by a script that, even for a comedy, simply doesn’t have very much substance.
Regrettably, Gurira, famous on television for the past several seasons of The Walking Dead and most recently, the blockbuster movie Black Panther, would do well to stick to acting.
Gurira draws credible, even interesting characters who interact convincingly enough. Like the hapless father of the bride (beautifully portrayed by Harvey Banks) who, outnumbered by loving, but nonetheless forceful females, can’t watch a football game in peace and basically survives by keeping his head down in his own home.
Lively banter engagingly bounces back and forth — so well, in fact, it takes a while to realize that for all the charming, animated activity, nothing is actually happening except the anticipation of Tendi’s wedding. About halfway through the first act, it grows increasingly clear that there’s a great deal of difference between conversation and dialogue.
Where dialogue moves the story along, we are bogged down in static to the point of being painfully inert. To keep the audience’s attention, the playwright resorts to closing the act with a cheap trick, showing some flesh and hanging sex in the air like dangling a carrot. This is accomplished by the clumsily implausible behavior of Tendi’s sister who, for some reason, walked out into freezing weather in her PJ’s.
It took until she was just about paralyzed and shivering before she had the good sense to come back indoors. Then you return to a second act so padded — including two well sung but pointless songs gratuitously dropped in to fill up time — you could stuff a mattress with it.
Gurira springs a stilted moment of truth that despite scenery-chewing histrionics can’t be saved even by the marvelously gifted Cage who does give it her best shot. When you’re this far into a story that is still serving up exposition and explanations, it’s a fundamental fact of the craft: the writing does not work.
The Guthrie sells sizzle as steak, dressing the production up in the playbill as an Africa meets America cultural experience. The program notes include what amounts to Social Studies 101 essays by the author, director, and Guthrie staffer Nneeka Onwuzurike, all of which are informative, affording politically correct background, but don’t add a thing to what goes on — or rather what doesn’t go on — on stage.
Danai Gurira’s Familiar runs at Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis, through April 14 on the McGuire Proscenium. Tickets are available at www.guthrietheater.org or at the box office or by telephone at (612) 377-2224 or 1 877 44STAGE. Groups of 15 or more receive discounts and are permitted a package of backstage tours and free study guides. For more info, call 612-225-6244 or 1 877-225-6211.