At almost four hours, The First Deep Breath at the Geffen Playhouse is unwieldy — and not because audiences will not sit for an epic play. An earlier work this season, part one and part two of Matthew López's The Inheritance, ran six and a half hours total and left audiences transfixed. And while Deep author Lee Edward Colston II has a knack for stirring monologues and humorously evocative exchanges, there are too many secrets, too many lies, too many dramas. It is the audience at the Geffen who is too exhausted to take deep breaths anymore.
The Jones family gathers for the upcoming holidays. The patriarch, Pastor Albert Jones III (Herb Newsome), rules his home with judgement and sanctimony. His wife, Ruth (Ella Joyce), suffers from Alzheimer's, a disease escalated by the traumatic death of their daughter six years prior. The deceased's twin sister Dee-Dee (Candace Thomas) fights to keep the family together, which also includes baby brother AJ (Opa Adeyemo), a high school senior with a secret passion. Into this already crumbling house of cards returns the prodigal son, Albert Jr. (playwright Colston), released from prison for unspeakable crimes, who's praying to rebuild his shattered life. But Albert has traded one penitentiary for another, and his father does not believe in redemption, despite everything he crows from his pulpit.
Colston has a solid, compelling two-hour play encased in three hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions. The length itself is no offense, but the storylines hardly warrant the duration. At least two characters could have easily been removed to strengthen the already inherent drama, but the play overwhelms instead of illuminates. This play's characters have inherited the pain, isolation, and distant parenting that generations of enslavement have imprinted onto them. The playwright draws these conclusions several times, but it gets diluted due to dragging too many scenarios into the equation. Colston does write several compelling arguments throughout the play, giving the actors much in which to sink their teeth.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III keeps the play moving so that it doesn't drag at any point; however, two sequences stand out as misdirected. A dance sequence in the second act means to represent a character's passion, but it is poorly choreographed, so the audience loses faith in that character's talent. And a vicious fight in the climax also could have been crafted better.
Joyce captures the innocence and frustration of someone imprisoned within her own mind. The play gives her ample opportunity to explode, and Joyce relishes those moments. Deanna Reed-Foster as the family aunt/caregiver lends sassy hilarity to her scenes and really drops jaws in her climactic third act speech. Thomas is also outstanding as the only surviving daughter, who must pretend to be her dead sister for her ill mother and chooses to play the martyr that keeps everyone from the brink of disaster.
Unfortunately, Colston is disconnected as Albert Jr. He doesn't compel the audience like he should and disappoints in the lead role. The production's biggest issue is the casting of the preacher. Originally, horror icon Tony Todd (Candyman and Final Destination) had been cast. Tall, glowering, haunting, and haunted, Todd's presence would have changed the dynamics greatly. The audience would completely understand why everyone lives in terror of their father. Newsome, a fine actor, just doesn't provide that silent fire that would make several characters' actions believable. Despite the character's sturm und drang sermon that opens the show, Newsome plays his character frail and exposed.
The set by Michael Carnahan is functional, but unilluminating about the family that presides inside. The lighting design by Pablo Santiago curiously lacks realism by having the doors, windows, and those above dark as if the play takes place entirely after dusk. Even more frustrating, the centerpiece on the stage, a framed photo of the dead daughter, is situated so that one of the spotlights reflects off it and into the eyes of quite a few patrons — a distracting proposition for those in the wrong seats.
Colston shows great promise as a playwright and The First Deep Breath has the potential to be a better play, with the right amount of tightening. There are rewarding elements throughout. However, in its current state, the whole enterprise overloads its themes. The drama needs to be scaled down so the purpose gains perspective and focus so that the play itself might breathe more easily.