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Two African-American brothers, one straight-arrow and one prone to temptation, walk the line between the Louisiana law and the pressures that tug and push men to break it, while a third figure—a charming trickster, pure as lore—tests both their wills and the strength of the fraternal bond: A story of the faraway familiar, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s rousingly written, deeply theatrical The Brothers Size is getting a lucid, funny, moving production at the Studio Theatre, courtesy of director Tea Alagic and a trio of actors so thoroughly invested in the material they might have written it in their own blood.
In a sense, McCraney did just that: The Brothers Size is a myth peopled by characters grounded in West African tradition, in the Yoruba pantheon, and in stories McCraney has spoken of being deeply attached to. Stern, hardworking mechanic Ogun Size (Gilbert Owuor) and his easygoing, easily distracted little brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) take their names from gods of iron and of seeking, respectively; ex-con Elegba (Elliot Villar), who bonded with Oshoosi during the latter’s short but scarring stint in prison, shares the attributes of the Yoruba trickster god—a catalyst figure against whom humans define themselves, whose temptations can lead to ruin or to revelation, depending on the strength being tested.
Oshoosi, needless to say, seems weak enough, but McCraney has surprises in store, and as Elegba offers him the lures of freedom and the small pleasures that come with it, the play tests audience assumptions along with Oshoosi’s character; ultimately, it tests Ogun’s strength as well as his capacity for forgiveness and love in an environment that seems designed to strangle both.
Alagic’s staging deals in simple, eloquent gestures—a circle of sand defines the playing space, a bed of stones bespeaks the connection of actors and characters to the earth—and the script moves to the rhythms of an onstage drummer, with characters speaking the stage directions at the top of most scenes. All of this could easily seem precious in less sensitive hands.
But Alagic’s cast masters both the script’s idiosyncratic challenges and the larger one that comes with every serious, honest play: They make their characters, myth-borne creatures though they are, seem deeply human.