You don’t always have to like your family, but you will always love your family. Such is the message of Paul Oakley Stovall’s earnest and involving new dramedy As Much As You Can, now at the Celebration Theater in West Hollywood. The show benefits from a talented cast, including author Stovall, and particularly Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, who gives a masterful performance.
Youngest child Tony (Andrew Kelsey) is getting married and the family has returned to their childhood home for the wedding. The eldest daughter of this African-American clan, Evy (Pinkins), lords over the house as a replacement matriarch, judging the brood with a Bible as her guide. The second in line, Jessie (Stovall), causes Evy much distress, as he left home at a young age and now lives a prurient “gay” lifestyle that breaks her heart.
Jessie further exarcebates the issue by bringing home his Causasian male lover, Christian (Wes Ramsey). While Tony and half sister Ronnie (Yassmin Alers) are accepting of the couple, Evy simply does not approve. However, as the audience witnesses, Evy rips apart all her siblings, finding faults in her Ronnie’s every move, and treating Tony like a baby. Yet what makes Evy such a compelling character is that love clearly motivates her. She devotes herself to her brothers, and begrudgingly, her sister, and fears for their souls. In her mind, Jessie will suffer in hell for being gay, and only she can prevent this atrocity.
Both Jessie and Evy read the works of famed author James Baldwin, but while Evy’s favorite novel Go Tell It On the Mountain, reflects her own devotion to religion and hints at the hypocrisy that her religion affords her, Jessie’s favorite book, Giovanni’s Room, shares the tale of a man’s homosexual awakening in Europe. The choices are quite telling.
As a school teacher, Evy preaches the words of Malcolm X in her lessons. However, her sister clues her into the works of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay civil rights leader responsible for counseling Martin Luther King Jr. on the teachings of Gandhi. Seeing how Evy evolves into a mouthpiece for non-violent deliberation makes her eventual mellowing towards her family understandable.
Director Krissy Vanderwarker keeps the blocking tight, removing personal boundaries so that these already antsy characters are bouncing off each other, like atoms about to explode. She also does well with the cast. Pinkins, whether reciting scriptures or the words of Malcolm X, perfectly embodies this wayward woman, alone even when amongst her loved ones. She demonstrates how much Evy wants to reach out to her siblings, even as her attitudes shackle her.
Stovall, Alers, and Kelsey submerge their characters’ personalities when around their imperious sister. They fear her, hate her, and love her all at the same time, and this dynamic is seen in how they greet her, argue with her, and play competitive card games with her. Rounding out the cast. Nicole Brooks is a firecracker, as Nina, Jessie’s lesbian best friend who ignores others’ judgments and lives life freely. The only wrong note is that Stovall and Ramsey have no chemistry as the boyfriends. While they’re supposedly lovers who want to spend their lives together, they don’t appear to have ever met before.
With its emphasis on forgiveness and enlightenment, As Much As You Can reminds audiences that even the most stringent family members can mellow thanks to love, patience, and the acceptance of others’ limitations.