By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Hail the returning heroine! After having made a splash as a TV/film actor and a bigger splash as a new playwright, Point Park University alum Ngozi Anyanwu comes back to Pittsburgh for a production of her recent award-winning play Good Grief receiving it’s local premiere at, of all places, Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
The play’s 2016 debut generated a lot of buzz in theatrical circles with important productions on both coasts, including a 2017 staging at New York’s Vineyard Theatre in which, by the way, Anyanwu also starred.
Good Grief continues through October 27 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 305 Forbes Avenue, Downtown. 412/392-8200. www.pittsburghplayhouse.com
The most exciting thing to report about Good Grief is just how wonderfully theatrical it is. Anyanwu has a gloriously fertile imagination and tosses out scenes of unbound drama like someone effortlessly scattering jewels on the ground. She’s taking us on a very internal, but nonetheless theatrical, journey and, amazingly, uses those gems as signposts.
And – to put it mildly – it could have not been that way because Anyanwu’s subject is about as far from the show’s joyful effect as possible.
A semi-autobiographical work, Good Grief uses as it’s starting point a tragic occurrence from her youth; when she was 21 a childhood friend suddenly died. And like any playwright worth her salt, Anyanwu builds a much bigger world from that seed.
In Good Grief we are introduced to Nkechi, a young woman powering through a fast-track pre-med program at Drexel University. That anxiety and stress, however, is suddenly nothing when her sort-of boyfriend, MJ, dies in a car accident. This event drives Nkechi to re-examine past memories of MJ as well as navigate her own present-day depression, isolation and suddenly-altered relationship with her brother, her Nigerian immigrant parents and a resurfaced old flame.
Good Grief doesn’t follow any sort of “well-made play” structure; just as Nkechi moves between past and present we move with her. Mirroring the dizzying roller coaster of emotions whipsawing Nkechi, the scenes Anyanwu creates are similarly jumbled in tone and style.
Reginald L. Douglas’ direction works beautifully in tandem with the playwright. Good Grief is, by design, not a “typical” play telling a linear story but rather a series of disjointed flashes and disconnected moments giving voice to the raging storm happening in Nkechi’s head. Douglas allows his student company to really push past the boundaries of conventional storytelling and give themselves over to the extravagance of Anyanwu’s theatrical vision.
Elise Dorsey turns in a powerhouse performance as Nkechi. Onstage the entirety of this intermissionless play, Dorsey moves perfectly in sync with the character and is such a hugely life-affirming presence we happily follow her wherever she wants to take us.
Mia Sterbini and Pierre Mballa give the roles of the parents a strong sense of solidity and manage to find great moments of comedy. Tim Judah plays Nkechi’s brother with rewarding intelligence and humor while Malle Winters as several different caregivers brings welcome compassion. Ivan Bracy Jr. and Alex Fetzko are the two love interests and work with talent and force to help illuminate their conflicted struggles.
Good Grief, in both good and bad ways, feels so much like a first-time script. The exuberance, daring and just plain audacity are intensely entertaining. Sometimes Anyanwu’s recklessness pays off, but sometimes it plays out like underdevelopment. And, too, she hasn’t quite managed to flesh out the characters that aren’t Nkechi (which are all the other ones.) She tantalizes us with brief moments of depth into these characters, but doesn’t explore them and, ultimately, everyone feels like a satellite of Nkechi’s.
But I don’t want to sound too much like a bitch about it. This may be a first play but it’s an explosively good one and it’s sort of staggering to think what other worlds Anyanwu is going to create.