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At some point, everyone must acknowledge that their parents are human beings. In Hymn, a tender two-hander receiving its Philadelphia premiere from Inis Nua Theatre Company, that revelation comes after a patriarch’s death.
Lolita Chakrabarti opens her play at the funeral of Gus, a stern family man who made a prosperous life for himself in London after emigrating from the Caribbean. His youngest child, Gil (Garrick Vaughan), delivers a heartfelt eulogy, his voice catching as he describes the successes of his father’s life and, tacitly, the setbacks of his own. Moments later, a stranger named Benny (Dwayne Alistair Thomas) approaches him with a bombshell: not only is he also Gus’s son, sired during a brief affair, but he and Gil were born only six days apart.
Anyone expecting a soapy melodrama based on these series of events can rest easy. Chakrabarti subverts the typical tropes inherent in this kind of story: the action is largely free of recrimination and resentment. The majority of the play focuses on the warm kinship that Benny and Gil feel for each other almost immediately—and, embedded in that recognition, the unspoken sadness of having lost so many years of fraternal bonding. Gil’s large family welcomes Benny and his three children, all named after jazz legends (Louis, Miles, Ella).
This is not to suggest that the proceedings are without drama. In fine performances by Vaughan and Thomas, we see glints of how each man’s lives might have changed if they’d been raised under different circumstances. Despite an unstable upbringing and modest means, Benny has a loving family and an easygoing disposition—things that elude the unhappily married and professionally stunted Gil. Yet even with all his blessings, Benny also cannot help imagining the course his life might have taken if he were claimed as a legitimate son. Under Eric Carter’s fluid direction, the performers build a fine-grained tension across the play’s 11 fast-moving scenes.
Chakrabarti’s structure is smartly crafted, with deeply dramatic encounters between Gil and Benny alternating with moments of levity. She also infuses music into the action, with songs like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Lean on Me” commenting subtly on the evolving stages of the brothers’ relationship. It also shows the ways that a shared musical language can work to bring people closer together.
Both actors flaunt massive voices that, without need for any amplification, bounce beautifully off the walls of the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake. When I wasn’t impressed by Thomas’s emotionally committed acting, I was thinking that someone should cast him in a musical immediately.
Hymn takes a darker turn in its final scenes, and with it, so does the production. Andrew Cowles’s lighting design becomes weightier, and Tiffany Bacon replaces vibrant costumes with suits of a graver hue. In the last 15 minutes of the play, Vaughan and Thomas achieve moments of deep introspection and aching transparency, which is made all the more impressive by considering the warm humor they played just minutes before. You feel as deeply for their plight as you would for members of your own family.
Know Before You Go: Hymn includes references to suicide that some audience members might find disturbing.
What, When, Where
Hymn. By Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Eric Carter. $15-$30. Through April 30, 2023, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.
The Louis Bluver Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue with private, all-gender restrooms.
Masks are required during the performance.
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