And Pat's correct: The truth is tough. And the truth is The Waiting Room plays out very much like the Emmy-bid episode of any family-centric sitcom. You're familiar with the beast: Bickering-yet-loving family members spend a night together in a hospital, picking at old wounds and then healing them while death waits off-camera. The dramatic tension (if we can call it that) of the unseen family patriarch teetering on the edge of life provides each of the principal actors a scene in which to go deep. They can reflect on their own mortality, reminisce about the halcyon days of yore and tighten the girth of that sitcom mainstay, "family ties."
Which is not to say this St. Louis Actors' Studio production is a bore. It's just very, very familiar. Director Ron Himes has the chops to keep the story from lagging, and his cast ranges from good to exceptionally good. And Williams' script, in spite of its mostly rote nature, is spiked with several moments that both provide laughs and transcend the very clearly defined safety zone of the play.
Most of these finer moments come from Webb's Uncle Pat. True, he's a stock nutty-uncle archetype: a rural black Republican who bristles at any reference to African-Anything and holds up his slave heritage as a badge of honor. Webb captures the playfulness of Pat's contrarian nature, making him likable even as he's haranguing a new mother for giving her baby a "made-up African" name. His argument — that these names are "insults to our slave heritage" — isn't really about a name. It's the generational argument that simmers in black America: The younger set is doing it wrong, undoing the progress of the past 50 years through a lack of respect for what's been achieved, and through a lack of self-respect. His foil, Rachel (Candice Jackson), is a spitfire, giving as good as she gets. She's just as proud of who she is, just as black, just as strong as Pat. If Williams had followed these two for the rest of the night — well, who knows. But Rachel leaves, not to return until the second act, when all the problems are scheduled to be neatly tied up in true sitcom fashion.
The bulk of these problems to be solved are related to family identity. They're not nearly as interesting as the identity problem predicated by Rachel and Pat's set-to; they fall neatly into the realm of "family secrets," and they're fairly easy to discern once the whole cast is assembled. Or if you're the type who closely reads the program. But no spoilers: There is some fun to be had in the revelation of these secrets, especially in the performance of Roman James. Another interesting character marginalized by the needs of the main story, James and her turn as a nurse who lusts too well, if not wisely, is a well-crafted one, and she makes the most of her big moment.
If Williams had made as much of his own big moments, The Waiting Room would have been quite a play. As it stands, it's a fun if predictable night out — but it won't linger in your mind until Emmy season. Or much past the ride home.