Review: “In the Upper Room” at Denver Center for Performing Arts

If you feel abuzz at the end of the world premiere of “In the Upper Room” at the Denver Center, it’s likely because you’ve been a mightily absorbed fly on the wall of the Berry household for a couple of hours.

If you go

“In the Upper Room.” Written by Beaufield Berry. Directed by Gregg T. Daniel. Featuring Matthew Hancock, Monnae Michaell, Sydney Cole Alexander, Levy Lee Simon, Yvette Monique Clark, Chavez Ravine, Courtney A. Vinson and Kayla King. At the Kilstrom Theatre at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis. Through March 13.  For tickets and info, go to denvercenter.org or call 303-893-4100.

After all, to peek in on someone’s home is to see its inhabitants in their uncensored, often blemished glory, to bear witness to their messy selves. And there’s plenty of sass and no small measure of hurt on display in the middle-class, Omaha, Neb., home where John and Janet Berry live with daughters Josephine and Yvette and John’s parents, Eddie and Rose, circa the mid-1970s.

Ah, Rose, by any other name she would smell as … well, honestly Rose Berry does not uphold any of the well-worn sayings about the bud. She’s more than a little bit prickly and knows how to make an entrance. It is her stifled scream as she rifles through a box of letters that kicks off playwright Beaufield Berry’s telling family drama about secrets and lies, generational trauma and multigenerational dramas.

Portrayed by Chavez Ravine, Rose has the haughty demeanor befitting a family matriarch, more intimidating than nurturing. When she descends from the room of the play’s title, activity tends to grow hushed if not outright cease. As imposing as she is, she spends an inordinate amount of time in front of her vanity dresser.

Not unlike a certain queen in the Brothers Grimm tale, something is eating at her. It isn’t age versus youth, so much as light versus dark. She dotes on her light-skinned granddaughter, Yvette, and gives Josephine, Yvette’s darker sister, her shoddiest treatment. But why?

The answers — for there isn’t a simple one — make for witty and wise exploration of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of colorism in the Black community.

Under Gregg T. Daniel’s fluid direction, the ensemble navigates the multilevel house and the play’s layers of revelation with grace, gravity and satisfying bites of playfulness. There are yarns to unspool and music on the hi-fi to cut a shag carpet to. Rose’s husband, Eddie (Levy Lee Simon), is a hard-working, upright man, but even he harbors secrets.

Son John (played with upbeat vigor by Matthew Hancock) is a dancer, a strutter and an enthusiastic teller of tales. Sydney Cole Alexander is terrific as Janet, the wife and mother who balances being respectful of her mother-in-law with being fiercely protective of her daughters.

Equally protective are Janet’s sisters Jackie and Delores (played to warm and hilarious effect by Yvette Monique Clark and Monnae Michaell). They push back against Rose’s imperiousness and provide “In the Upper Room” with sly laughs. They pray hard and play hard.

Kayla King and Courtney A. Vinson bring zest and pathos to the siblings who, although they look like their parents’ children, don’t resemble each other. Even so, they remain tightly bound as they try to make sense of and minimize their grandmother’s favoritism and inexplicable dislike. This Rose is a rose is a toxin.

Rose seems to hold everyone in the household under her thumb, if not a spell. The playwright teases just how dark that spell might be when the girls disobey their grandmother and bring a Ouija board into the house to consult the spirits about Rose’s mysterious roots.

Thanks to a fine piece of stagecraft — and the playwright’s interest in stories surreal and magical — things get a little hot.

Given the play’s title, it’s no surprise that designer Efren Delgadillo’s set is itself a vivid character. Still, it’s a challenge to make commanding use of the Denver Center’s in-the-round space (rechristened the Kilstrom Theatre). This set — with Rose’s and her granddaughter’s side-by-side bedrooms on risers and the family gathering spots on the first level – does so meaningfully.

“In the Upper Room” ends in much the way it begins. To say more would be to spoil a bold gesture, one that had an audience member exclaim loudly, “Oh, my God!” Which, far from being annoying, stated something the rest of the audience opening night, likely felt.

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