Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Mothers on the Defensive in The Good Counselor
Vincent is a young African-American lawyer employed as a public defender in a poor, depressed rural American community. He has been assigned to defend Evelyn, a young single Caucasian mother who is being tried for murder in the death of her 22-day-old son. Vincent is not too happy with his assignment. His mother, Rita, is a judgmental church lady, given to ecstasy. Along with much of the local black community, she is angry at him for working on behalf of a vile child killer. He also is being subjected to expressions of racial animosity from Evelyn. Most distressing to Vincent is the dangerous, erratic behavior of his older brother Ray. Although he is working as a roofer for the moment, Ray is a hard-core crack addict never more than a hair trigger away from descending into the hell of his addiction. The other on-stage presence is Maia, the supervising attorney of the public defender office. Her sage guidance leads Vincent to empathize with Evelyn. Maia understands the pain of child bearing, the difficulties of motherhood and the inherent nobility of Evelyn, despite any role the latter may have played in her child's death.
Author Kathryn Grant presents us with two melodramas in The Good Counselor. The more conventional and old fashioned of the two is the one in which the dedicated and educated black professional uses his training and erudition to help the deeply troubled, down and out, hardscrabble Caucasian societal outcast. This aspect of the play is satisfying as it is tightly written and compellingly plotted.
The second, less satisfying story of the play is the family melodrama involving Vincent and his mother and brother. Vincent comes to believe that Rita chose to expend most of affection and limited resources on him because she judged him to be the best candidate for success, and that in so doing, she badly short changed his siblings. Vincent focuses in on an act of neglect by Rita which he is convinced caused Ray's downfall. Vincent verbally assaults Rita. He tells her that her failure to seek out Ray or inform the police when he ran away from home at the age of thirteen was as chargeable as any act of Evelyn's. He adds that if he himself had not covered up for her, she would have been in the same position that Evelyn is in now. Vincent also attacks her for what he sees as her hypocritical and delusional religious ranting. Ultimately, Vincent's guilt-driven, grossly unfair hostility to his mother seems more a device than a true response of a man of his nature. Neither his emotion nor his argument is convincing. In a poetic vein, Vincent finds his own good counselor in his brother Ray, in his quest to come to terms with their mother.
Edward O'Blenis is largely solid as Vincent. However, there are moments when his performance is underpowered and unsteady. Geany Masai neatly fills all the requirements of the stock character of Vincent's mother, Rita.
Erik LaRay Harvey is electrifying as Ray. Harvey effortlessly encompasses the bi-polar extremes of this deeply disturbed individual. Without stinting on the angry, raw emotions which tear at economically stressed, marginally employed single mothers, Susan Louise O'Connor's portrayal of Evelyn embodies the weary, weather-worn, older than their years women one sees scratching out a living in small-town diners and eateries throughout the depressed rural areas of our country.
Socorro Santiago richly portrays Maia with the accent and fire of a striving Eastern European immigrant in the first half of the last century. She might well be playing Emma Goldman. Thus, despite the finely wrought detail in her performance, her Maia feels anachronistic.
Premiere Stages' Artistic Director John Wooten has brought this production through a development process which has provided playwright Kathryn Grant with a creative and collaborative setting in which to shape and hone her play. He has directed this occasionally poetic play crisply and clearly on a wide stage with the prison interview area and courtroom at stage right, and Rita's house at stage left, each largely depicted by furniture. There is a screened-in window upstage center. Projections on its rear wall represent additional locations. Wooten sometimes places one of his actors behind the window's screen to produce visually arresting tableaus. The smart scenery is the work of Joseph Gourley.
Playwright Kathryn Grant is a promising talent with a sharp ear for dialogue. Although it is not entirely successful, Grant's The Good Counselor is engrossing, thoughtful and thought provoking, and worthy of our attention.
The Good Counselor continues performances (Evenings.: Thursday, Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday & Sunday 3 pm) through August 1 at Premiere Stages, Zella Fry Theatre at Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey 07083. Box Office: 908-737- 7469/ online: www.keanstage.com.
The Good Counselor by Kathryn Grant; directed by John Wooten