The Waiting Room
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 22, 2007
The legendary Negro Ensemble Company opens its 40th anniversary season with The Waiting Room, a charming new comedy by Samm-Art Williams in which a hospital waiting room serves as both confessional and aphrodisiac. There's nothing like the possibility of death to compel one to get right with God, and maybe get a little action as well. Williams knows his way around a double entendre, but The Waiting Room also holds family values in high regard, which is a good thing considering how quickly everyone's family history gets tangled here.
The play takes place over the course of a day in the waiting room at the hospital in Bend River, North Carolina. The patriarch of the Innes clan has just suffered a heart attack, and the family converges on the hospital to await further word on his condition. There's Riley, the afflicted man's 40-year-old son, and the play's narrator; Uncle Pat, a loquacious old sharecropper who votes Republican and likes the ladies; and Aunt Jessie, a proper, down home Southern lady. Tensions run understandably high early on, and Uncle Pat, not one to hold his tongue on any matter, starts running off at the mouth. First, he hits on Cookie, an aging vixen visiting her terminal sister (after learning that she covers herself with motor oil to keep mosquitoes away, Uncle Pat drolly remarks, "I'll bet you don't have a lot of sex, do you?"). Then he berates Rachel, a family friend, for naming her newborn daughter Tomika Tolisha Bonisha. Finally, he begins revealing long-kept family secrets, and the Inneses' collective world is turned upside down. Add to the mix Gordon, a middle-aged redneck in a Confederate flag t-shirt, his son Casey (Riley's best friend in high school), and Hanna, a nurse who's been carrying a torch for the now-married Riley since puberty, and you've got a pretty combustible situation.
The Waiting Room has an endearing bonhomie, and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility about itself (I laughed out loud when a disembodied intercom voice announced, "Dr. Fuller to the E.R. Dr. Charles Fuller"). But it also has a surprisingly potent streak of civic humanism. Williams implores his characters (and the audience, as well) to embrace a larger, more inclusive idea of what family means, whether they like it or not. This is the South after all, and blood is thicker than water. Any differences the characters may have with each other are ultimately neutralized by their lineage.
Charles Weldon directs The Waiting Room with the same languid, easy rhythms of the South. What the production lacks in urgency it makes up for in authenticity in that regard. The efforts of the cast reflect that same looseness. Ed Wheeler has just the right dry, homespun wit as Uncle Pat. Ebony Jo-Ann is all sugar and spice as Cookie. Michael Chenevert is appropriately flustered as Riley. The rest of the ensemble does fine work nailing their jokes and earning our sympathies.
This is a rare comedy that is both funny and thoughtful, and gives audiences an opportunity to see a renowned company in action. It'll be nice to see what they come up with next.