By Chisa Hutchinson; Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Produced by Keen Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 4.13.19
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 3.18.19
Brenda Pressley and Jay Mazyck in Surely Goodness and Mercy. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful and moving look at the transformative nature of compassion, led by a strong cast.
When we meet Tino (Jay Mazyck), a shy, timid 12-year-old who wears an ironed dress shirt and tie to school, he’s really not in a good place, to put it mildly. He’s getting yelled at by his aunt Alneesa (Sarita Covington), who is furious with him for interrupting Maury. He wants to discuss the Bible, which he has started reading—and she tells him he’s “fucking weird.” He tries to share with her something that happened at school—a girl had scratched her arm until it drew blood—and she accuses him of lying and smacks him on the back of the head.
The situation at his Newark public school seems only marginally better. We hear the sounds from the cafeteria where the other kids are having breakfast but he goes to a classroom where he’s alone until Deja (Courtney Thomas), the girl who scratched her arm, joins him. Deja initially comes off as tough and hostile, but pointedly tells him that unlike everyone else, Tino at least doesn’t ask dumb questions.
He does have one friend: Bernadette (Brenda Pressley), a lunch lady who yells at the other kids, but has some compassion left for Tino. They talk about church and the Bible; when Deja unexpectedly joins him for lunch, Bernadette warns her she’ll be keeping an eye out. She’s protective of him because, as she explains to Deja, the other kids have teased him since his mother was shot and killed; they think he’s a coward because his mother pushed him out of the way. But Bernadette is also in real trouble health-wise, waking up in excruciating pain. Tino decides he’s going to help Bernadette with medical research. But when she ends up hospitalized, he decides, with the help of Deja, to go for a big gesture that ends up changing more than one life.
Keen Company's last production was a revival of Ordinary Days this past fall. The ethos of the company and its productions, as the name suggests, is one that encourages a level of earnestness and positivity. Those themes are reflected in the characters of Surely Goodness and Mercy, a show about loss, child abuse, a poor school system, and health care. Chisa Hutchison's script illuminates how these people build on tenuous connections and, after some stumbling, figure out how to improve someone else’s situation.
Jay Mazyck, who’s 19, beautifully captures the warmth, awkwardness, and sadness of a smart kid struggling in the aftermath of death. Courtney Thomas is also convincing as a kid working through her defensiveness to discover how much she needs someone like Tino. In Hutchinson’s hands, the relationship between Tino, Deja, and Bernadette is deftly written, with laughs and genuine tenderness. A feisty and no-nonsense Brenda Pressley offers a welcome, caring adult presence in a world that’s decidedly lacking in elders who act with intelligence or empathy. Sarita Covington is incredibly affecting as a physically and emotionally abusive woman who didn’t want children messing up her life.
Lee Savage’s economic stage is well used, serving as Tino’s home, school, church, and Bernadette’s place. Savage has Tino’s bed on one side and Bernadette’s on the other, further illustrating the bond between the two. Nicole Wee’s costume designs are also strong, especially in the way Deja's costume makes the adult actress disappear into the character. Devorah Kengmana’s lighting design and Sadah Espii Proctor’s sound design are skillfully used, in particular in the church scenes that feature piped-in sermons delivered by an offstage Cezar Williams, bringing a congregation to life on a stage that’s otherwise empty save for a few actors.
My main issues are with the abrupt end to the first act and the unresolved, somewhat pat ending. At an earlier point the play was to be 90 minutes without an intermission. It's unclear why Hutchinson and director Jessi D. Hill made the change but the placement of the intermission does not feel like an organic break in the action. While the ending is hopeful, it also comes across as rushed and simplistic. That being said, Keen Company is doing something pretty rare right now with their "Season of Impact"—putting on shows that look to leave you moved, perhaps enough to inspire you to additional acts of kindness.
(Surely Goodness and Mercy plays at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through April 13, 2019. The running time is 95 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. There are also performances Wed 4/7 at 2 and 7. Tickets are $65 ($25 on Tuesdays, and $80 premium) and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit keencompany.org.)
Surely Goodness and Mercy is by Chisa Hutchinson. Directed by Jessi D. Hill. Set Design by Lee Savage. Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana. Sound Design by Sadah Espii Proctor. Costume Design by Nicole Wee. Stage Manager is Jana Lynn.
The cast is Sarita Covington, Jay Mazyck, Brenda Pressley, Courtney Thomas, and Cezar Williams.