Play: The Good Times Are Killing Me
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
Dates: April 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, May 1, 2, 3
Tickets: $15 and $20; contact 314-719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Story: It’s 1966, and 12-year-old Edna’s neighborhood is changing. The blue-collar, big-city enclave is seeing its one-time, all-white appearance change with the times. Neighbors of Japanese, Chinese and Filipino heritage have settled in somewhat comfortably. Now, however, the first wave of black families from the inner city is following their own pursuit of the American dream. Some of the less flexible white residents pick up roots and move elsewhere, while Edna, her sister Lucy and their parents remain.
At first curious about the Willises, the new black family down the street, Edna eventually befriends their 12-year-old daughter Bonna. The two girls draw strength from their similarities as they cope with personal tragedies as well as dealing with the various eccentrics in the neighborhood, their extended families and the ‘cool’ kids who seem unapproachable to the two awkward girls.
Highlights: Based on a book by cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry, this gentle two-act drama is most effective in Barry’s uncanny ability to harness the dialogue, moods and mannerisms of young children. The world in her recollection is more real than fantasized, thus allowing all of us to re-enter the social upheaval that placed its indelible stamp upon the 1960s.
There are several outstanding elements to the Mustard Seed Theatre production that accentuates the strong points of Barry’s work while also underscoring its weaknesses. Director Deanna Jent surely and marvelously choreographs the movements of the cast of 17 performers, keeping the action flowing smoothly while never letting the cumbersome size of the group become an issue. Quite to the contrary, in one memorable scene in Act II most of the ensemble engages in an entertaining and lively bit of street sass.
As the narrator, Colleen Backer superbly illustrates her uncanny ability to draw herself into a character totally. Her delivery of Edna’s lines is marvelously complemented by her precise accenting of just the right words, accompanied by mannerisms and gesticulations that delightfully capture a 12-year-old’s romantic world.
Other Info: The set designed by Dunsi Dai suitably conveys not only Edna’s middle-class home, complete with its signature ‘60s furniture, but also helps the viewer easily envision an entire street as Edna’s home and Bonna’s front porch bracket the goings-on, with a row of cut-out ‘homes’ serving as backdrop. It’s all handsomely lit by Glenn Dunn, most especially an amusing moment in Edna’s basement where she introduces her world-famous “record player nightclub” with some funky red lights. Kareem Deanes adds the delightfully atmospheric sound design, a blend of Top 40 hits from the era and the floor-stomping, hand-clapping gospel music of Bonna’s church, while Jane Sullivan’s costumes accentuate the frumpy dresses of the matrons as well as the carefree spirit of the teens.
Briston Ashe brings a solid, stately interpretation to Bonna, dealing with her own personal challenges in a serious fashion. Kirsten Wylder and Christopher Hickey are engaging and complex as Edna’s troubled parents, as are Robert Mitchell and Margery Handy as Bonna’s loving folks.
Kim Furlow and B. Weller sparkle as Edna’s domineering aunt and simmering uncle, while Bess Moynihan and Natasha Toro are buoyant as Edna’s annoying cousin and her ‘hip’ friend. Solid supporting work is provided by Tim Norman as the troublesome neighborhood leader Early, Deames as Bonna’s impish brother Elvin, Katie Donnelly as Edna’s clinging little sister Lucy, Phillip Bettison as Edna’s pouty cousin Steve, Toni Roper as Bonna’s headstrong aunt and Valleri Dillard as the earnest daughter of the local Girl Scout leader, played by the versatile Mr. Hickey.
As talented as this troupe is, and as measured and precise as Jent’s direction proceeds, the inescapable fact is that Act I is a mostly joyous visit back to an earlier time, filled with snippets of high-spirited tunes, while the second act stands in stark, forlorn contrast as the music essentially dies and the story comes to a screeching halt. Very curious, indeed, and somewhat disappointing.
Still, the show’s good times are thrilling me despite dissatisfaction with the conclusion. It’s certainly a production worthy of your time.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.