Sunday, July 18, 2010

REVIEW: "THE GOOD COUNSELOR" AT PREMIERE STAGES

The Good Counselor in World Première Production at Kean University

Mothers. We can’t live with them; we can’t live without them. They give us life, care for us when we're young and often push us to achieve our dreams (and theirs). We idolize—and idealize—them, and when they let us down—being human, after all—we are disappointed, and our love can turn to hatred. Given those pitfalls inherent in motherhood, it’s a wonder any woman would choose to become a mother at all!

This prickly topic is the focus of playwright Kathryn Grant’s drama, The Good Counselor, winner of the 2010 Première Stages Play Festival, now receiving its World Première production at the Zella Fry Theatre on the main campus of Kean University in Union, where it will run weekends through August 1.

Without giving away too many of the plot’s twists and turns, suffice it to say that The Good Counselor is Vincent, a bright young lawyer in the Public Defender department in an unnamed city, who has been assigned to defend a young woman accused of killing her three-week-old son. Defending the woman, “tough cookie” Evelyn Laverty, will test Vincent’s legal skills, for he must convince the jury that this poor, uneducated mother is worthy of their sympathy, a not-inconsiderable task given that she’s paranoid about giving away personal details, very proud, very profane and a racist. This latter detail is important because Evelyn is white and Vincent black.

Complicating Vincent’s dilemma are the dynamics of his own family. The only child (of four) to attend college and, subsequently, law school, Vincent is haunted by the plight of his older brother Raymond, whom he worshipped as a kid and who has spiraled into a life of drugs that ends badly. The boys’ mother Rita, a Scripture-spouting, church-attending woman (“A sight for sore eyes when she gets the spirit,” as Ray says) has washed her hands of the “lying, thieving thug” her firstborn has become, applying tough love and vowing that “he’s not gonna take [her] down.” What Vincent cannot figure out is why Rita pushed him and abandoned his brother. Does that make her a good or a bad mother? Is she like Evelyn or different?


Of course, the answers to such questions—especially those about what it means to be a good or bad mother—are complicated and do not provide easy answers. As the playwright peels away the layers surrounding these two families, Evelyn’s and Vincent’s, he and we face uncomfortable truths about the nature of mother-child relationships. That the exploration is prompted by a heinous crime—the disappearance and subsequent discovery of a dead baby in a bean field—gives the play the tension so necessary to good drama.

The theater’s performance space has been reconfigured into a wide stage to hold Joseph Gourley’s set, encompassing the prison interview room, a jury box (occupied by theatergoers in the audience—although they don’t have to render a verdict), Rita’s living room and, through the use of multi-media projections on the back wall, a variety of venues, including the bean field where the corpse was found, a railroad trestle and Rita’s yard. John Wooten directs with a deft hand as the action moves from place to place and, in some cases, from present to past and back again.

Unfortunately, Edward O’Blenis disappoints as Vincent. He fails to inhabit the role convincingly; his halting delivery (and multiple line fluffs) interrupt the drama’s rhythm. His best scenes are the role playing he indulges in with Evelyn, his horseplay with Ray and his final confrontation with Rita.

Erik LaRay Harvey is magnificent as Ray, funny, charming, lost and very sad. His mother’s neglect of this young man is heartrending. As Rita, Geany Masai is equally as fine. We alternately like and dislike this woman (often at the same time); that she’s much like Evelyn makes her portrayal even more resonant. While Socorro Santiago doesn’t have a great deal to do as Maia, Vincent’s boss in the Public Defender’s office, her speeches highlight the often crushing problems faced by poor women about to become mothers, women abandoned (or forgotten) by social services to raise their families in abject circumstances. She too had some trouble with her lines at the performance I attended.

But it is Susan Louise O’Connor who really nails the character of Evelyn Laverty. O’Connor never lets us forget that this high school drop-out is really a young girl who wants to have fun but is saddled with two kids, no insurance, a lousy job (one that doesn’t pay for maternity leave) and a husband who’s in prison, a woman who just “wants to have a normal life” and who longs to “be the mother her children deserve.” Her performance will break your heart.

Nadine Charlson’s lighting fluidly moves our attention from place to place, and Karen Hart’s costumes really delineate just who these characters are as people. And best of all, although a white woman, Kathryn Grant has quite an ear for black speech, which sounds natural and convincing when spoken by black actors.

The Good Counselor is worth a trip to the Kean University campus. This thought-provoking play about motherhood, its choices and their outcomes upon their children transcends race and social status. Every mother makes choices regarding her children every day, sometimes every minute/hour. That they may come to good or ill is often unknown at the time. But does that make such women bad mothers? Go, and see what you think.

The Good Counselor will be performed Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 3 PM in the Zella Fry Theatre at Kean University on Morris Avenue in Union, through August 1. For information and tickets call 908.737.SHOW or visit online at http://www.keanstage.com/.