The premiere of Good Boys hits home with heartache and catharsis
Gripping, yes. Painful, yes. And if wonderful is the right word to use about a play that makes you ache with its hurt, then, yes, the premiere of Jane Martin's Good Boys at the Guthrie Lab in Minneapolis is wonderful, indeed.
Wonderful, too, is Glynn Turman's portrayal of Thomas, the black father whose son was shot eight years before by a white boy in a Columbine-style school shooting. As Thomas, every fiber of Turman's being vibrates with an authenticity that held me pinned to my seat throughout the one-act drama.
It took courage for Turman to enter the soul of this character. The feelings he communicates so cogently as Thomas come directly from life experience; fifteen years ago, Turman lost his own son to violence.
Incipient violence rumbles beneath the action of Good Boys, as two fathers, one black and one white, meet for the first time after the deaths of their sons. Thomas is a preacher whose life is still so torn by his son's murder that he can no longer preach. He has tracked down James in a Florida park because he believes he will find meaning in his son's death by connecting with James, the father of the boy who gunned down his son. But James has cobbled together a ragged sort of solace for himself with drink, isolation and the bricking-in of his feelings. He wants no part of this meeting.
Themes of racism, rage and forgiveness flicker through this play, hot as summer lightning, as James, the once wealthy businessman, talks down to Thomas as though he were a Stepin' Fetchit black stereotype. But Thomas is a man whose wealth lies in his humanity. As the men engage in a back and forth tussle of guilt, anger, accusation and grief, their boys re-enter their consciousness in flashbacks that reveal how a son's alienation has its roots in a father's attitudes towards himself and how the racial tensions within a school can flare into violence.
Martin creates characters who feel as real as next door neighbors. This mysterious playwright, who works under the pseudonym of Jane Martin, has a great understanding of human nature and the problems of raising children in a society steeped in violence.
Under Jon Jory's direction, Steve Yoakam plays James, an angry man who is hard on himself and on his son, Ethan. Appearances matter to James, so when he finds a pipe bomb in Ethan's drawer, he doesn't go to the police. He thwacks Ethan over the head, then becomes complicit in getting rid of the bomb. Yoakam finds the shame buried deep in James and doles out shame to Ethan. Love and fury are knitted so tight in Yoakam's James that when he hugs Ethan it looks like an act of violence. "I should hurt you," he says, his son gripped in his arms.
As Ethan, the excellent Casey Greig brings to life a bright, sensitive and damaged boy. Greig's Ethan is slight in build, vulnerable and articulate, with a bitterness beyond his youthful appearance.
His antagonist in school is Thomas' son, Marcus, a big, easygoing football player, played by Marlon Morrison. Morrison captures the right physical swagger for a boy who is comfortable with himself and who will defend himself against perceived racism. A little less certain is Adam Western as Corin, Thomas' younger son. Corin is a quiet boy but, before the play's climax, Western's Corin comes over as almost flat.
One small problem in the production is that audiences might fail to grasp at first that Ethan exists only in his father's memory. The play opens with James sitting on a park bench, surrounded by the subtropical flowers of Neil Patel's box-like set. The lights dim, and Ethan walks on and begins to talk. Not until the second time the lights dim and Ethan comes onstage did my companion understand that the reduced lighting signals a flashback.
All in all, the Guthrie Lab's premiere production of Good Boys is a powerful and cathartic play about courage and healing after shattering harm. James is truly changed by play's end, and I felt changed, too.
Until Sept. 22. Guthrie Lab, 700, 1st St. Minneapolis. Tickets: $22-$30. Call 612-377-2224.