Bleed­ing hearts, fam­ily foibles in com­edy crosshairs

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

IN her search for so­cial jus­tice, Val has found a Lost Boy of Su­dan and taken him into her com­fort­able home in River Heights as one of the fam­ily. Her char­i­ta­ble act is the cat­a­lyst for an en­gag­ing new com­edy by Win­nipeg­ger Tr­ish Cooper, who is se­ri­ously in­tent on ex­am­in­ing is­sues of loss, ex­pec­ta­tions and the per­sonal cost of do­ing the right thing. Ev­ery­one in the 135-minute piece, which had its pre­mière at Prairie The­atre Ex­change Thurs­day, has ad­mirable in­ten­tions that are no match for the com­pli­ca­tions they don’t see com­ing. Cooper, in her first full-length work, of­fers an en­ter­tain­ing les­son about a fam­ily try­ing to be good but, amus­ingly, not al­ways get­ting it right. Val, a mid­dle-aged do-gooder, is serv­ing as a sub­sti­tute mother for Deng, who was one of 20,000 young boys who made a gru­elling 1,600-kilo­me­tre trek to Ethiopia and safety from the Su­danese civil war. Her 16-yearold daugh­ter, Sarah, pro­vides all that back­ground ma­te­rial as part of her school as­sign­ment in so­cial stud­ies, which, like the play, fo­cuses on peo­ple in re­la­tion to one other and the world in which they live. The trio’s do­mes­tic peace is in­ter­rupted by the ar­rival of emo­tional older daugh­ter Jackie, seek­ing sanc­tu­ary af­ter the sud­den breakup of her mar­riage. She ex­pects to slip right back into her for­mer po­si­tion in the fam­ily’s arms, but is sur­prised to learn it has been given away. “What is a Deng?” she asks, when told that her room is now oc­cu­pied by one of the Lost Boys who came to North Amer­ica in the late ’80s, seek­ing peace, free­dom and ed­u­ca­tion. The ever-smil­ing and po­lite Deng em­braces her warmly, call­ing her sis­ter. It is Jackie who seems like the refugee, driven from her home by a mar­i­tal war that has left her an­gry, bro­ken and job­less. Earth mother Val won’t al­low Jackie to feel sorry for her­self — not while Deng, a straight-A univer­sity stu­dent, has re­bounded so im­pres­sively from per­sonal tragedy. All Jackie wants to do is lie on the couch, munch on po­tato chips and carp about Saint Deng. Cooper, in an im­pres­sive de­but, has a lot of fun at the ex­pense of her middleclass, white char­ac­ters by send­ing them up as silly, petty and hope­lessly en­ti­tled. Val can’t be­lieve that Deng hasn’t heard of ’70s pop act Cap­tain and Ten­nille, whose hit song Love Will Keep Us To­gether is prob­a­bly her theme song. Pretty, blond, blue-eyed Sarah calls her­self “one of the least drunk girls I know.” Jackie turns to the proven first-world cure of re­tail ther­apy to get her out of her funk. Deng, too, draws laughs in the way his ex­pla­na­tions get lost in trans­la­tion, al­though his stri­dent ho­mo­pho­bia comes through loud and clear. Some of the jokes are pedes­trian and even pre­dictable, which was ob­vi­ous when some­one in the open­ing-night au­di­ence voiced the punch­line be­fore the ac­tor. The play­wright even­tu­ally leads So­cial Stud­ies to a darker place in the sec­ond act, when the char­ac­ter’s prin­ci­ples are tested and eas­ily dis­carded for the sake of ex­pe­di­ency, sus­pi­cions are acted upon and se­crets are re­vealed. Di­rec­tor Robert Met­calfe keeps a tight rein on the script, cre­at­ing an easy flow while en­sur­ing max­i­mum im­pact. Met­calfe’s lo­cal cast also brought ex­pec­ta­tions and sur­prises. Ma­rina Stephen­son Kerr, who plays the wellmean­ing Val, and Alix Sobler, the schem­ing Jackie, are known quan­ti­ties who can be counted on to bring rich tex­ture and nu­ance to the stage. In So­cial Stud­ies, Stephen­son Kerr deftly sells the way Val’s so­cial con­scious­ness be­comes com­pro­mised when her pro­tec­tive ma­ter­nal in­stincts kick in. Sobler’s chal­lenge is to por­tray the less lik­able char­ac­ter, but she suc­ceeds in mak­ing Jackie the one the au­di­ence most iden­ti­fies with. What’s un­fore­seen is the qual­ity work of new­com­ers Jenna Hill, as cu­ri­ous Sarah, and Richie Diggs as the mys­te­ri­ous Deng. Hill, the younger sis­ter of Broad­way star Sa­man­tha Hill, brings an easy nat­u­ral­ness to her PTE de­but, high­lighted by a chal­leng­ing drunk scene she nails. In his first pro­fes­sional ap­pear­ance, Diggs — a Univer­sity of Winnipeg the­atre pro­gram grad­u­ate whose fam­ily is orig­i­nally from Liberia — in­fuses Deng with an ap­peal­ing ex­otic dig­nity, but yet seems un­know­able. His smile and ge­nial­ity mask the hor­rors of Deng’s past. Val at­tempts to find Deng a place in her mid­dle-class world and, de­spite her pure mo­tives, gets lost too. The re­sult of all her at­tempts to help the less for­tu­nate is that Deng has grad­u­ated from Lost Boy to lost man.

BRUCE MONK PHOTO

Richie Diggs, left, as Deng and Jenna Hill as Sarah in Tr­ish Cooper’s im­pres­sive de­but full-length com­edy.

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