There’s a point in Surely Goodness and Mercy when a child is mistreated by a trio of ignorant, incompetent, sanctimonious, authoritarian adults in a manner that is infuriating precisely because it is so common place. There is hardly an audience member in the world who could not see themselves in the shoes of twelve-year-old Tino (Donovan Session) in that moment. However, there may not be as many audience members who respond to problems the way Tino does, which is what makes him fascinating. Now in the final production of its rolling world premiere at Redtwist Theatre, Chisa Hutchinson’s drama explores where people find grace and solace when life throws dirt in their faces. An ensemble of four actors in Redtwist’s tiny Edgewater space lead us through intense pain, humor, and joy in this slice-of-Newark-life.
A Boy Everyone Disregarded Steps Up
Tino lives with his aunt, Alneesa (Katrina D. RiChard), who is a piece of work. He never knew his father and his mother died shielding him from gunfire, for which the other kids view him as cowardly. Recently, Tino has started reading the Bible, which causes everyone to see him as even more weird. The closest thing he has to a friend is the elderly lunch lady, Bernadette (Renee Lockett). But after the girl who sits next to him has a stress-induced meltdown and he’s cool about it, she, Deja (Charli Williams), befriends him, too. He even stumbles across a liberal African-American Baptist church, where he feels at home and is wowed by the charismatic reverend’s sermon on making oneself a blessing to others.
Unfortunately, things get worse again as Bernadette’s health fails. Too poor for medical care, too scared to look for options, and too stubborn to ask for help, she rapidly falls apart. Tino appoints himself to be her advocate, a role he does better at than can be expected, but which naturally adds to his stress. It also sets him on a collision course with Alneesa, since he’s been using her resources, and she does not take that well at all.
Redtwist Theatre Becomes a Spiritual Trail
Director Wardell Julius Clark and set designer Lauren Nichols have created a separate space onstage for each location. There is a practical reason for this: Hutchinson is fond of short, silent scenes that exist to establish a mood and then allow the plot to start moving again. But it also makes the stage look like the stations of a medieval religious drama, as does the colloquial Gospel translation scrawled in massive letters across the wall and floor. In addition to directing his excellent live actors, Clark provides pre-recorded dialogue as the reverend. His performance makes clear why Tino feels so instantly loved and becomes committed to Christian community. The effect is reversed with Brianna Buckley and Julia Skeggs as the outrageous teacher and principal, who are all the more remote and sinister by being invisible.
Small Ensemble Provides Intimately Detailed Performances
The live actors maintain such a cohesive illusion it’s easy to forget that we are watching two adults play people much younger than themselves. (Although this reviewer would have bought fourteen more easily than twelve). Renee Lockett’s Bernadette is crotchety but a rock for her friends. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to watch her setting her alarm earlier and earlier as she struggles against the ravages of MS. Session and Williams as Tino and Deja are an adorable couple. Their banter is amusing and they inspire each other to be braver and more focused and personable as they mature. RiChard also exceeds in a difficult role. Alneesa is a detestable, bitter person, though Tino becomes uncomfortably aware that, to people who don’t know Bernadette, the short-tempered lunch lady comes across that way, too. The first half of Surely Goodness and Mercy has a slower pace than the second, and that’s so it can take its time establishing these characters. But once that’s done, we’re well-invested and can join them on their journey.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
1044 W Bryn Mawr, Chicago
Thru March 18
Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3:00 pm
Running time is one hundred minutes with one intermission.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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