Bailiwick’s entertaining ‘Mahal’ explores the struggle of redefining family post-tragedy

F Karmann Bajuyo, Kate Garassino and Kevin Matthew Reyes in Bailiwick Chicago Theater’s world premiere of production of “Mahal”

“Mahal” is Tagalog for “love.” It also means “expensive.” While it might seem odd that such an important word serves two meanings, when you think about it, it makes sense. Love is precious. It’s something that emerges only after great investment of time and emotion. Though, sometimes it comes unexpectedly — but we burn through it too quickly. It requires work to maintain.

So, yes: love has a price. And it’s not cheap.

In Danny Bernardo’s world premiere play, which is receiving a refreshingly accessible production at Stage 773 by Bailiwick Chicago, we meet a family — the Reyes — that’s been shaken up due to a recent tragedy. The family matriarch has passed, and it’s as if the glue that held the cracks together has crumbled. And now this fractured family must negotiate how all the pieces fit together.

It’s times like these where skeletons and deep down emotions come flooding from the proverbial closet. Is the family’s love for each other strong enough to whether this storm?

As Mikey, the youngest in the family, Kevin Matthew Reyes has a lot of growing up to do. He’s living off his mother’s inheritance while trolling men on Grindr. His older sister (Kate Garassino, giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from her yet) deals with an internal struggle of dragging her brother kicking and screaming into adulthood while maintaining peace. Middle child Roberto (Karmann Bajuyo) has met a new woman online (Jillian Jocson) from the Philippines, but does she have an ulterior motive for connecting with him? Meanwhile, Roberto (Joseph Anthony Foronda), the patriarch, hasn’t waited three months before redecorating for his new bachelorhood — much to his children’s horror.

In more than a few ways, Bernardo’s script reminds me a lot of Immediate Family — another fine ensemble play with roots in Chicago that centers around a family who comes together following a tragedy and must deal with acceptance and moving forward. There’s the uptight eldest daughter who’s sacrificed her life to keep the family together, the golden (and therefore, resented) son who happens to be gay, and the outsider boyfriend who gives them all perspective. However, while both plays have striking similarities, both have valid, distinct and compelling stories that tug at the heart.

At times Bernardo’s otherwise honest writing veers into Lifetime Movie land (the final scene between Mikey and his father doesn’t emotionally satisfy), but you do leave thinking about your own family and the investment you’ll make to maintain their love — through rich and poor times.

“Mahal” plays through August 2 at Stage 773. More info here >

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