The cast of "Familiar", a comic drama by Danai Gurira, now playing at San Diego's Old Globe Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage through March 3, 2019. All photographs by Jim Cox.

By Lisa Lyons

“Familiar,” a dramedy from Tony Award-nominated writer/actress Danai Gurira (Black Panther, The Walking Dead), attempts to shine the light on the plight of the expats from the troubled land of Zimbabwe who fled to America during the 1980s seeking to start a new life of opportunity. Many of those who were part of the resistance movement turned their back on their former country, and the resentments of those who remained have been etched deeply into families torn asunder in more ways than one.

Now living in suburban Minneapolis, the Chinyaramwira family, headed by father Donald (a fully-fleshed, heartfelt performance by Danny Johnson and steely-spined matriarch Marvelous (a rock solid, heartbreaking performance by Cherene Snow), welcome home youngest daughter Nyasha (an effervescent Olivia Washington) from a months-long trip to Africa on the eve of older daughter Tendikayi’s wedding to Chris, a white, upper middle class financial do-gooder running a non-profit who is doing all he can do integrate smoothly into his newfound family. Marvelous’s younger sister Maggie (a sassy sympathetic Ramona Keller), is a wine-guzzling, entrepreneurial single mom of grown boys who (to the family’s dismay) don’t know anything about their African heritage not even knowing one word of their native Shona language. This is fine with Marvelous who longs to leave all memories of Zimbabwe in the past, unlike her husband who has a secret desire to return to his homeland.

As in many strained family celebrations, an uninvited guest shows up to throw a wrench into the marriage proceedings. Family matriarch Auntie Anne (the larger than life, elegant Wandachristine) has been flown in by the bride and groom to make sure that traditional Shona elements are integrated into their church ceremony. Haughty, elegant, and haunted by the past, Anne opens up a Pandora’s Box of family history that throws all participants into a whirlwind of high emotions, guilt, and recriminations that threaten to derail the planned wedding for good.

Still thinking this is a comedy? It’s kind of hard to forget when at the end of Act One, Brad, Chris’ younger brother who is a “whoa, Dude” kind of guy who rips open Nyasha’s pajama top and presses his semi-naked body to hers after she succumbs to severe hypothermia having walked out into the frozen Minnesota winter landscape to gather her fevered thoughts. These broad, farcical elements seem at odds with the serious undertones of the play. One feels that too many bases were trying to be covered and too many storylines are rushed to tie up in Act Two. There is so much going on that moment that should resonate occasionally get lost, which is a shame because the performers are doing great work.

Tall, elegant Zakiya Young showed us the vulnerable, insecure side of Tendikayi’s cut and dried, a repressed lawyer whose life is scheduled down to the nth degree. Lucas Hall manages to overcome Chris’ inherent geekiness and make him something more than a caricature of a white boy in a black-white relationship. Anthony Comis brings a sweet underdog quality to the feckless Veteran Brad who has always lived in Chris’ shadow.

 The specter of a family ghost who has been mostly unknown by the younger Chinyaramwiras suddenly throws the identity of several family members into doubt although there is no doubt that the family and the loving relationships therein will survive and thrive moving forward.

There’s a lot of words in this play, so one can imagine that director Edward Torres, who most recently directed “Native Gardens” at the Globe, had his work cut out for him, but he keeps the momentum going and elicits incredible chemistry from his cast.

Major kudos go to the scenic design of Walt Spangler and lighting scheme of Jason Lyons. That is a real, substantial house on that stage, one you would immediately want to move into and when characters slam doors (as they are wont to do), it’s a satisfying solid slam, no shaking scrim walls. Also a tip of the hat to Costume Designer Alejo Vietti. Who has a sharp contrast between Marvelous and Tendikayi’s conservative Midwest sensibility and Anne’s proud, brilliant native costume of acid yellow, red and greens that draw the eye to the grand dame of the clan?Playwright Gurira has produced highly praised dramatic works on both coasts and has an undeniable talent for mining the hearts of characters she creates. This one needs a slightly sharper focus that can be softened by the finely drawn performances of the actors involved.

If you’re wondering where the title “Familiar” comes in, it’s a song that Nyasha writes for her sister’s wedding that captures the wistfulness of love, longing, and loss. Perhaps under all the drama lies basic truths that are familiar to all of us.

“Familiar” runs at the Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage until March 3. For performance dates and times, visit www.theoldglobe.org.