Ngozi Anyanwu stars in her own rueful memory play at Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Regret can be the sharpest of spurs, especially when you possess a highly creative mind. In Good Grief, a semiautobiographical play having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, playwright and actress Ngozi Anyanwu essentially grants herself (or her stage alter ego) a do-over. Following the loss of a longtime childhood friend who probably should have been her lover, Nkechi, a self-described dorky Nigerian girl in Pennsylvania, figures out a way to unlock time just enough so that she can travel back and say some things that need to be said. She moves between past and present, keenly aware that the outcome will be painful. And Nkechi grieves hard.
Is this "good" grief? While it may not be particularly productive or therapeutic for her, it's certainly plenty engaging. Patricia McGregor's production is by turns funny, poignant, and occasionally self-indulgent. As its star and author, Anyanwu (who plays Nkechi) carries a balanced load, of dramatic and comedic moments in the production. With the exception of a single scene involving the character's parents, Anyanwu never leaves the stage.
"If I could be anything, I would be a king," says Matt (Wade Allain-Marcus), a dreamy and highly charismatic teenager. "Because kings live forever." Lying on Matt's bed, his best friend Nkechi eggs him on, flirts with him, and even crosses him. We're at the beginning of the play, where we are thrust right into a moment, one where a character's dream of immortality will quickly prove to be ironic. Matt dies, tragically and prematurely, prompting Nkechi's journey to recall and relive scenes from their shared past.
Back when Matt was the new kid in town, a pushy Nkechi plays hard to get with her friendship before taking him under her wing. The two end up the closest of friends. As Matt proves popular with the girls and Nkechi burns to lose her virginity, the friendship only deepens. The two tent-like houses of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's set have room only for Matt and Nkechi's nearly identical bedrooms. Dangling overhead light bulbs help place this action in a kind of dream landscape mirroring their young souls. When the two characters kiss, the bulbs glow brightly.
The play's other characters seem largely ancillary. Whether because they're too clueless or simply because they're of a different world, Nkechi's immigrant parents Papa and NeNe (Dayo Ade and Omoze Idehenre) don't realize the depth of their daughter's attachment to Matt, and they are unable to be of any comfort once he is gone. They clearly have ambitions for their brainy daughter that excessive grief interrupt. Their obtuseness makes them easy comic relief, and while Nkechi is sobbing away in her bedroom, Ade and Idehenre enjoy a scene that is equal parts hectoring and tenderness.
As a playwright, Anyanwu mixes hip and smart-alecky dialogue with some more rueful pearls of wisdom about the ephemeral nature of memory. The actress herself purposefully devoid of glamour, stripping down the role to its bare essentials, making for a fitting tour guide across this jagged emotional landscape of "good grief."
Even at 90 minutes, the play sometimes feels stretched out as underutilized or superfluous characters (notably Nkechi's brother and a high school boyfriend) make appearances. Its star is charismatic enough that Good Grief might have been effective as a solo work. The play's flaws notwithstanding, Anyanwu has established herself as a theater artist to watch.