Playwright: Lydia R. Diamond. At: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Tickets: 773-891-8985; www.windycityplayhouse.com; $20-$45. Runs through: July 5
Twenty years ago, Lydia R. Diamond set out to write a "well-made" family drama in the style of mid-20th-century authors like Lillian Hellmana genre that Horton Foote, Lorraine Hansberry and Tracy Letts have since invoked. The venerable conference-round-the-couch or midnight-in-the-kitchen polemics take on new resonance in 2015, however.
First off, both couch and kitchen are now located in the Levays' sleek vacation home in swanky Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusettsproperty bestowed on Captain Levay as a gift from a local magistrate nearly two centuries earlier. The current residents of that name include a successful neurosurgeon, his older sonalso a surgeon, albeit of the plastic varietyand his up-and-coming novelist younger son. What makes this weekend different is that the lads have brought their fiancées to meet the parents. One prospective bride sports impressive lineage, but meager finances, while the other comes of affluent stock, but is shockingly "melanin-challenged." ( Did I mention that the Levay family is African-American? ) Likewise unprecedented is the teenage daughter of the ailing housekeeper performing domestic duties in her stead before leaving for college after the summer. Oh, and the clan matriarch is conspicuously absent.
What, you thought that money guaranteed happiness? That rewards allotted to "good blood" ensures the security of its descendents? That upper-crust fortunes are not often founded upon shady beginnings? By making a racial minority the dominant culture represented in her narrative, not only does Diamond undermine her audience's preconceived biases, but deftly skirts stereotypes associated with both up-from-slavery sermons and post-Norman Lear sitcoms by virtue of her characters' uniform sophistication and educational prowess. In this rarefied universe, scholarship-funded entomologists are not always nerds, nor are white sociologists-in-training invariably airheads, but are capable of discussing their shortcomingsand those of one anotherwith insight as articulate as the identity confusion engendered thereby.
The Windy City Playhouse is shaped more along the lines of a cocktail lounge than a traditional auditorium, but Chuck Smith, who directed this play's premiere at Congo Square in 2006, refuses to configure his material to the patterns of frivolous tired-businessman comedy. Under his guidance, a palpably intelligent cast led by Philip Edward Van Lear as the intractable Levay sire and Paige Collins as an unlikely Cinderella navigate their personae's progress with never a stumble or misstep. The result was that even the sometimes foreseeable plot complications elicited audible testimony from a final preview audience whose investment in the action onstage remained undiminished by the sumptuous surroundings.