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The broken double helix of pain

Donnetta Lavinia Grays’s play is about the limits of love—both in what it can accomplish, even when it feels infinite, and in what it can tolerate before it disappears. Monique (the protean Ayanna Bria Bakari) shows up at her sister’s house with her 11-year-old daughter in tow and an undisclosed agenda. (Daughter Sam is played at alternate performances by Kylah Renee Jones, flawless on opening night, and the no doubt equally capable Aliyana Nicole.)

In flashbacks, we see the start of Monique’s relationship with Sam’s father Reggie (Steppenwolf ensemble member Namir Smallwood, in a performance of great tenderness and power) as well as Monique’s deterioration from creative ingenue to irresponsible junkie. When she leaves Sam with her sister Rachel and Rachel’s wife, Nadima (Sydney Charles and Jessica Dean Turner, respectively), another couple comes under acute strain.

Last Night and the Night Before
Through 5/14: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Wed 5/3, 2:30 PM only; no performance Sat 5/13; open captions Thu 4/27 8 PM and Sat 5/6 3 PM; audio description and touch tour Sun 5/7 (touch tour 1:30 PM); ASL interpretation Fri 5/12 8 PM; mask-required performance Wed 5/3 2:30 PM; Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$88

Nor is filial love a refuge, as Sam tries to please both parents, be unobtrusive to her aunts, and define herself independently all at once. So many currents and crosscurrents risk leaving the audience at sea, but Valerie Curtis-Newton’s sharp direction creates a through line, so the incidents and relationships are reinforcing rather than muddling. Every character receives a fully rounded and lived-in portrayal, and the motif of childhood hand-clap chants leavens what otherwise would be too dense an examination of how pain is passed down like a broken double helix.

And the best thing about the experience wasn’t even on the stage but in the audience, which was the most racially inclusive and age-diverse I’ve experienced in Chicago, demonstrating the power of well-chosen art to bring us together.

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