Such a simple word, home. A mere four letters. Exhale a single syllable and you’ve said it.
But oh, what a massively fraught and intricate world of relationships, memories, and meanings is bound up in that simple word.
One of Boston’s top dramatists, Kirsten Greenidge, dives deep into that word and that world in “Our Daughters, Like Pillars.” Her emotionally complex, ambitious, and frequently absorbing if overlong play is finally receiving its world premiere, directed by Kimberly Senior, at Huntington Theatre Company. (It was originally scheduled to open in March 2020, before the pandemic rang down the curtain on stages everywhere.)
Greenidge (”Luck of the Irish,” “Milk Like Sugar”) has always been exceptionally well attuned to family dynamics. “Our Daughters, Like Pillars” reflects the playwright’s understanding that family life is something we experience singly as well as together; that it’s a story we tell in the first-person singular, not just in the plural.
The play revolves around the Shaws, a Black family from Boston spending a week’s vacation together in North Conway, N.H., in July 2021. The Shaws have brought along plenty of family baggage, a secret or two, a couple of hidden agendas, and a few unresolved conflicts. All the ingredients of drama, in short, though “Daughters” also provides a goodly share of laughs.
The primary focus is on the three Shaw sisters: Lavinia (Nikkole Salter), who is adamant that the week be a phone-free idyll, and also devoid of any discussion of religion or politics; Octavia (Arie Thompson), who is struggling to finish writing a book and spends more time staring at her laptop than at the scenery; and Zelda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), the family rebel, who makes a dramatic entrance in her large camper, though Zelda prefers to think of it as a tiny house.
Lavinia’s goal is to persuade her sisters that the three of them should live together in one home, for keeps. Is she seeking to tighten family bonds in response to the separation and isolation of the pandemic? Or seeking a do-over of their upbringing? Or both?
The picture becomes both clearer and murkier over the course of an eventful week that is punctuated by the arrival of a most unwelcome surprise guest. The sisters are still processing certain events from the past, especially that life-changing afternoon long ago when their now-deceased father left their mother, Yvonne (Lizan Mitchell), for a younger woman, Missy (Cheryl D. Singleton).
Also on hand in the woodsy spot in the Granite State (deftly evoked by the blending of trees and house in Marion Williams’s set) are Lavinia’s good-natured husband, Morris (Postell Pringle), and Zelda’s free-spirited new boyfriend, Paul (Julian Parker). Both Pringle and Parker are assets to the Huntington production, though at times Wednesday night Parker was not sufficiently audible. Greenidge has also given more airtime to Paul’s philosophical ruminations than is warranted, symptomatic of the play’s principal flaw: its duration.
Let’s grant that one of the most facile things a reviewer can say about a play is that it would be better if it were shorter. But I believe it’s true of “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,” which stretches over three acts and clocks in at 3½ hours, with two intermissions. While at its best “Daughters” embodies Greenidge’s love for, and skill at, working on a large, amply populated canvas, the play’s epic length takes a toll on its vitality and urgency. The issues and conflicts in the play are compelling, but they get diluted in a three-act marathon. That said, a core strength of the playwright — her ability to craft sharp dialogue that is both specific to a character and suggestive of deeper themes — is in evidence throughout.
The play belongs to the women, and the performances are uniformly strong. Mitchell gives Yvonne, the mother, a fascinatingly ethereal quality: Yvonne seems detached and all-knowing at the same time. As her antagonist, Missy, Singleton is a marvel. The actress sketches a picture of imperturbable entitlement, of a would-be matriarch serene in her conviction that she deserves to live with “my girls,” even though she broke up their family.
Allyn Cox doesn’t just convey Zelda’s restlessness and exasperation with her family; she makes you understand the reasons for both. Thompson brings a low-key desperation to Octavia’s thwarted efforts to do the one thing — write — that gives her an independent identity. Salter is a particular standout as Lavinia, still struggling with regret and bitterness at dropping out of college decades earlier to support her family. That selflessness and sense of obligation is what Lavinia calls “the fine print” of her life, yet she can’t seem to escape it. When Zelda vehemently tells Lavinia that “No one wants to live with you,” Lavinia immediately replies: “I’d like to see everyone try to live without me.”
But it’s a line Lavinia tosses off casually early in Act One — “What are sisters for? What is family for?” — that frames and percolates through the play. As “Our Daughters, Like Pillars” illustrates, the answer is complicated.
OUR DAUGHTERS, LIKE PILLARS
Play by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through May 8. Digital access to filmed performance available until May 22. Tickets to in-person performances and to filmed performance start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org