In the preface to her extraordinarily eloquent play Good Grief, Ngozi Anyanwu tells us that it takes place between 1992 and 2005 in Bensalem, Pennsylvania — and also “at the beginning of time … and the future.”
The story revolves around the droll and complex friendship between a young woman whose raw honesty is both her gift and her curse, and a thoughtful, unassuming young man she’s known from childhood. When he dies prematurely in an automobile accident, she’s flooded with grief — not only for the person who so vividly inhabited her present and her past but for everything he seemed to be evolving into for her future.
Beautifully produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and directed by Patricia McGregor with sensitivity and grace, the piece has one foot in the everyday world we live in and the other in the contemplation of time, death, grief, love and loss that inform the most profound dramatic work.
When we meet her, Nkechi (Anyanwu), the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, has been studying to be a doctor, likely at the behest of her opinionated, patriarchal Dad (Dayo Ade) and her mother, Nene (Omozé Idehenre), a nurse. But Nkechi has begun to perceive that she’d rather be a writer than a doctor, a realization she confides to her friend MJG (Wade Allain-Marcus), a laid-back dreamer who likes to speculate on what it would be like to be a king, honored and preserved in memory by everyone.
One who easily takes umbrage, Nkechi isn’t easy to be pals with, but MJG has persevered from their early years in grade school, when he sought out her friendship despite her gruff, rejecting manner. In high school, 15 years old and never-been-kissed, Nkechi turns to MJG for guidance when she has the coveted opportunity to garner that first smooch with the school’s prom king, whom she’s been tutoring. The lesson (not surprisingly) is a turning point in their friendship, the beginning of a testy, tangled intimacy whose significance becomes most clear after MJG loses his life. Years later, that former prom king, JD (Mark Jude Sullivan), re-emerges; like MJG, he’s a charmer whose gallantry testifies to our feisty protagonist’s great taste in men.
Though Nkechi and MJG are front and center much of the time, the play’s other characters and their culture are brilliantly illuminated by the actors. One of the most captivating scenes is an interaction between Nkechi’s parents, who quarrel about what to do as they listen to their daughter grieve, with her mom counseling patience as she diverts her frustrated husband with beguiling words and embraces. Another memorable and funny encounter transpires between Nkechi, an honor student who’s assimilated into suburban America, and her brother (Marcus Henderson) who, though as smart and educated as she, has adopted the subculture and lingo of the ghetto (yet beneath the bravado and disaffection also mourns the death of his sister’s friend).
From the opening sequence — with the supporting ensemble colorfully arrayed as various gods and goddesses (wonderful costumes by Karen Perry) — the playwright traces a link between her earthbound characters, with their bickering foibles and uncertain dreams, and a grander cosmos not just outside them but within. Kathryn Bostic’s music, Pablo Santiago's light design and Adam Phalen’s sound meld beautifully on Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s fluid set to help realize her vision.
GO! Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through March 26. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.