If Tarell Alvin McCraney's intense, deeply satisfying "The Brothers Size" has not yet been mentioned in the same breath as Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog" and Sam Shepard's "True West," it should be.
It's that good.
An examination of the complex, inscrutable relationship between male siblings, "The Brothers Size" is the second installment in "The Brother/Sister Plays," McCraney's refreshing, uniquely theatrical three-play cycle, which combines West African folklore and urban American reality to engaging and devastating effect.
Currently running in repertory at Steppenwolf Theatre, the interconnected plays are directed by ensemble member Tina Landau, who's credited - along with her cast - for the choreography which figures prominently in the productions. In a counterintuitive move, McCraney has the actors speak stage directions to the audience. But in the hands of Landau's very capable ensemble, what could have been a distraction emerges as an engaging and welcome storytelling tool. What's more, Landau's intuitive, organic staging suits McCraney's stylized yet accessible dramas, whose power ultimately rests in their simple lyricism, wrenching honesty and memorable characters.
Chronologically, "The Brothers Size" comes between "In the Red and Brown Water" and "Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet." Concise, emotional and exquisitely acted by K. Todd Freeman, Phillip James Brannon and Glenn Davis, "Brothers" is the best of the trio. That's saying something considering the weakest among them - "Marcus" - is still a very good play. Together they explain the acclaim the 29-year-old McCraney has received over the last few years.
Sacrifice and obligation, the desire for escape and the need to belong underscore each of the plays which center on the residents of a Louisiana housing project near the Bayou. Each plays out in what McCraney refers to as the "distant present," on James Schuette's large, austere, blackwashed and mostly bare set.
"In the Red and Brown Water" centers on high school track star Oya (a vulnerable Alana Arenas), who turns down a college athletic scholarship to care for her terminally ill mother (Ora Jones). With her mother gone and her college dreams dashed, Oya finds comfort in the swaggering, seductive army recruit Shango (Rodrick Covington), who has a girl in every tenement. After their relationship implodes, Oya turns to the hardworking mechanic Ogun (a touching Freeman). He's desperately in love with Oya, although she cannot return his feelings.
Observing the triangle is Aunt Elegua (a brassy, imposing Jacqueline Williams), the neighborhood grande dame, and young Elegba (a perfectly impertinent Davis), a charmer with a sweet tooth and an inclination for petty crime.
"Marcus" is about Elegba's 16-year-old son Marcus (Davis as an endearing nerd), whose recognition of his homosexuality - which everyone else, including savvy best friend Shaunta (Arenas), has long suspected - inspires him to ask his tight-lipped mother Oba (Jones) about the father he never knew, a subject she's not inclined to discuss.
The tone of "Marcus" contradicts the tone of other plays; its Hurricane Katrina references feel forced and it is not as fully realized as the other two. But then, McCraney sets the bar pretty high with "The Brothers Size."
A telling portrait of brotherly affection and exasperation, "The Brothers Size" opens with Oshoosi Size (the vulnerable, desperate Bannon) returning home to his brother Ogun (another remarkable, gut wrenchingly real performance by Freeman) after a stint in prison. Upsetting Oshoosi's transition to civilian life is Elegba (Davis), a fellow parolee, who took on the role of brother to Oshoosi when the two were incarcerated. Shifting seamlessly from heartwarming to heartbreaking, "The Brothers Size" unfolds as a struggle for the body and soul of Oshoosi and concludes with a raw, simply voiced expression of love and sacrifice.
If "The Brother/Sister Plays" aren't already on your "to see" list. They should be.
The Brother/Sister Plays
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The Brother/Sister Plays: "In the Red and Brown Water," "The Brothers Size" and "Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet"
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: The plays run in repertory at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through May 23. Also 2 p.m. April 7, 14 and May 5. No 7:30 p.m. performance April 11, 18 or May 8. No 3 p.m. performance May 8
Running time: "In the Red and Brown Water" runs two hours with intermission. The double bill of the one-acts "The Brothers Size" and "Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet" runs 2½ hours with intermission
Parking: $9 parking in the Steppenwolf garage
Rating: For adults