By all appearances, Muriel is a normal African American housewife living a happy, if sometimes exhausting, middle-class life in upstate NY, sharing a loving relationship with her devoted husband Curtis and their quintessential teenage children Rhonda and James. But things aren’t always what they seem.
In his profoundly moving one-act domestic drama Leaves, now playing a limited engagement at Theater for the New City, award-winning playwright Victor Vauban Júnior, who also directs, presents a heart-rending story of the vital importance of love and family, and the lingering impact of trauma on mental health.
Employing the format of a memory play, the scenes move back and forth in time, as Muriel, preparing to celebrate the couple’s 31st anniversary, reflects on their first meeting, first date, and first kiss in college. An industrious student and singer, who had plans with her sisters Benita and Verna to become the next girl-group sensation like The Supremes, Muriel chose instead to marry Curtis, which put an end to the siblings’ dreams. Since then, she has felt their resentment towards her husband, though they, too, later married and moved on to successful lives in NYC. Sparks fly when they arrive uninvited at Muriel’s house on that special day, but their impassioned visit comes to a surprise conclusion that ultimately reaffirms their undying love, concern, and commitment.
For an emotion-packed play like this to work, it requires believable, expressive, and empathetic acting, and it has just that. The outstanding cast of six delivers fully-rounded performances of Vauban’s three-dimensional characters, letting us get to know their distinctive personalities, enabling us to relate to their joys, pain, and humanity, and making us feel, think, and care about them.
Dierdra McDowell turns in a revelatory performance in the lead role of Muriel, relaying her perspective on life with her beloved family, showing the stress and elation of her everyday activities and cherished recollections, and reacting explosively to the momentous encounter with her sisters. Inhabiting the characters of the sisters are Patricia Fields as the vehemently frustrated Benita and Soyini Crenshaw as the more gentle and non-confrontational Verna. Both display fully convincing reactions to the situation at hand, which, though different in nature, are equally understandable and compelling, and raise questions about how best to deal with the critical problem they’re facing – a discussion the playwright hopes to stimulate.
Ben Rowe is a delight as Curtis, a steadfast suitor, then spouse, who clearly adores his wife and can’t get enough of her – even when, as with all couples, there are points of contention. And rounding out the consistently excellent cast are Cassandra Borgella and Riyadh Rollins in the dual roles of the couple’s close-knit daughter and son (whose typical teasing and bickering with each other touch on significant issues of colorism), and, in flashbacks, the younger college-age Muriel and Curtis, whose eternal love we see blossom.
The actors are supported by a fitting and well-executed design, with costumes that suit the characters by Carolyn Adams, telling light and sound by Geoffrey Christopher and Dayvis Ferreras, and a familiar everyday set (with a family photo prominently placed in an ordinary kitchen, and an accumulation of autumn leaves scattered around the house) by Lytza R. Colon, with Matteo Esposito serving as assistant.
Leaves is a triumph of writing, directing, acting, and design; it will move you to tears, while filling you with a better understanding of the struggles of life and the essence of true love. It’s a play that should be seen, so be sure not to miss it.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Leaves plays through Sunday, August 29, 2021, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm, at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, NYC. In keeping with current safety protocol, masks and social distancing are required, and temperatures are taken at the door. Members of the audience will need a vaccine card in hand, or, if not vaccinated, a printed version of a negative COVID-19 test result taken within the past three to five days. For tickets, priced at $18 for General Admission, $15 for Students and Seniors, go online.