"Mahal" (Bailiwick Chicago): Genuine Family Affair

"Mahal" (Bailiwick Chicago):  Genuine Family Affair

Bailiwick Chicago presents the World Premiere of MAHAL.

“Family can be a lot!”  This sentiment is stated and reinforced in Playwright Danny Bernardo’s engaging story of the Reyes.  Mom has just lost her battle to cancer.  Her kids and husband are dealing with it… each in their own way.  Dad is redecorating.  Jun is skyping. Mikey is hooking-up.  And Mari is trying to facilitate a family dinner at her mom’s request.  Although MAHAL is specifically about a grieving Filipino American family, it’s relatable to anyone with siblings and parents.   The secrets, the avoidance, the criticism, the drama, the comedy: it’s one big family reality show. The relational dynamics escalate into an explosive first act climax.  In contrast, Act 2 has tensions dissipate into a homemade Filipino lesson in mahal.

Bernardo captivates with an intricate expose on a family dealing and not dealing with each other.  The dialogue crackles with humor.  The set-ups are so compellingly believable, an audience member responds to a revelation moment with “oh crap!”  Bernardo pulls us in and makes us care about this lovingly, dysfunctional family.  He dangles bits of persona and events for us to piece together.  We sort out the truth behind the family’s mourning. Under the well-paced direction of Erica Weiss, the talented ensemble gets the laughs and the concern from the audience as the stories unfold.  This family seems genuinely family! Their present is marred from their past. Everyone has made mistakes.  Everyone has been a disappointment. Everyone remembers everyone else’s faults.  Like family?!  You betcha!

The cast, individually and collectively, embrace their role in this family. Particularly noteworthy is a forceful Kate Garassino (Mari). Garassino tries to bring cohesion to the fragmented lives.  With stellar comedic timing, Garassino delivers many one line zingers.  A delightfully nimble Blair Robertson (Kendall) also garners big laughs in exiting the family drama …twice.   At the heart of the show is the very likable Kevin Matthew Reyes (Mikey).  A conflicted Reyes avoids any serious relationship confrontations.  In one amusing scene, Reyes hides underneath a blanket while his father (played by Joseph Anthony Foronda) questions the boyfriend (played by Patrick Byrnes) about his son’s whereabouts.  A hilarious Byrnes showcases animated storytelling while the gently, even-keeled Foronda looks with affection at his hidden son.  The moment is sweet.

The impressive set designed by Stephen H. Carmody is a wooden box.  Depending on the scene locale, a wall is moved to expose a bar, a bookshelf, a couch, a window.  The utilitarian remains simplistic and specific at the same time.  There was a slight set malfunction going from Mikey’s to dad’s place when a window didn’t disappear. I only mention it as a justification to cut down on the number of scenes.  Action goes here and there on the revolving set.  Although the pace is quick, cutting back on the number of scene transitions would effectively streamline the story.  In addition, Bernardo’s dialogue is mostly natural.  Yet, there are conversational exchanges that are borderline corny.  Sure, the sentimentality is there.  But because we now know the family so intimately, we don’t quite buy that they would say that.

MAHAL is a powerful glimpse into the differences and similarities of relationships from a generational, cultural and technology standpoint.

Running Time:  Two hours includes an intermission

At Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

Written by Danny Bernardo

Directed by Erica Weiss

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 2pm

Thru August 2nd

Buy Tickets at www.stage773.com

Production photograph courtesy of Michael Brosilow

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