“Broke-ology” is “a complex new science that examines two things,” says older brother Ennis King in Nathan Louis Jackson’s tough and tender play . “One, being broke. Two, staying alive despite your brokeness.” The issues of family responsibility, survival and sacrifice are not new , being the source for great dramas and not-so-great melodramas. But what draws the aud into Jackson’s loving play — receiving its preem at Williamstown Theater Festival — is the attention to the detail of the caring, struggling family and the perfectly balanced perfs that make these characters believable, human and moving as they face forces beyond their control.
The King family has been experiencing broke-ology for some time, but things have gotten especially rough in recent years and even staying alive is getting to be an almost insurmountable challenge. Loving mother Sonia (April Yvette Thompson) died of cancer. Hardworking patriarch William (Wendell Pierce) has MS — which is rapidly worsening. Son Ennis (Francois Battiste) works multiple jobs to support his wife and new baby.
When younger son Malcolm (Gaius Charles) returns from college for the summer, it is clear that the question of how to take care of Dad is going to put strains on all three King men, especially with Malcolm’s hopes of going to graduate school.
The details of the family’s struggle are evident in Donyale Werle’s thoroughly lived-in setting of the King’s modest, well-worn home in the embattled ‘hood of Kansas City. Just as Werle has did in “High Fidelity,” a world of eye-catching specificity is created — also echoed in Emily Rebholz’s costumes.
The richness of the play comes in the dailiness of the King family’s life: a game of dominoes that brings the men together and reveals their deep affections; a playful caper with the brothers bonding when they kidnap a neighbor’s garden gnome; the discovery of a forgotten Temptations cassette that summons sweet memories and the aching realization of unfulfilled dreams.
Helmer Thomas Kail keeps things real and relaxed, bringing the same casual authenticity he brought to the Broadway tuner “In the Heights.” Cast is uniformly splendid, especially Pierce’s proud and vulnerable patriarch who wants the best for his sons but finds himself without options.
Battiste brings humor and charm as Ennis, without sacrificing his character’s sad desperation. Charles gives Malcolm a special light while making clear that he is forever linked to his family and his roots. Thompson supplies a serene and significant presence as the mother.
Play wanes when characters’ dreams and conflicts are laid out too obviously and dialogue slips into banality . (“I’m not going to be the one who holds you back,” says father to Malcolm. “Only you know what’s best for you.”)
Also the schematics of the play are evident from the beginning, leaving little surprise.
But it’s not the final resolution that distinguishes the work — and further recognizes Jackson as a talent to watch — but rather the depth of the relationships among the characters as they face their societal and existential plight. This human element so well drawn here makes the play worthy of further productions.