BWW Review: SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY at Salt Lake Acting Company

16 September 2017

BWW Review: SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY at Salt Lake Acting Company

Broadway World Review| Blair Howell | September 12, 2017

SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY is an engaging new light comedy with a agreeably subtle religious theme, expertly directed and staged by Salt Lake Acting Company.

The first production in SLAC's 2017/18 season, this play's premiere staging is a "rolling world premiere," a phrase apparently coined and used exclusively by the National New Play Network, The organization provides financially support when three regional companies agree on a single new piece to present within a year. SLAC, one of 30 core and 75 associate members and an active participant in the program, has staged enjoyable collaborations in the past. NNPN has supported 250 new works over its 20-year history, however its website doesn't boast names of works that have broken through to national recognition.

Emerging playwright Chisa Hutchinson was commissioned to write SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and given the only instruction to write a play that is somehow relevant to her home state -- of New Jersey. All of the characters are black, living in a neglected, impoverished New Jersey neighborhood, but the theme of the play is universal: small acts of kindness can have a hugely rewarding and life-altering impact.

Tino is an intelligent but nerdy 12-year-old student whose mother died when he was 9 and is now living with his aunt, loudmouthed Alneesa, who struggles to make rent payments. She is resentful that she needs to house and support Tino and has little concern for his welfare. The boy's pal and somewhat love interest, Deja, shares meals and conversation with Tino at the high school cafeteria, authoritatively run by the tough-talking but warmhearted -- and hilarious -- lunchlady, Miss Bernadette. There are also voiceovers by Tino's teacher (Sammee Lydia James); principal (Bijan J. Hosseini); and minister (James Jamison). Each of the seven characters is (or is it "are"?; ask Tino that grammar question) sharply drawn.

With the title taken from Psalm 23, the play is never heavy-handed in its religiosity. The primary concern of the first act is to slowly introduce the characters, and Hutchinson includes a few short scenes to illustrate personality traits. The concluding act drives the play. While SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY is designed as a gentle work, one can imagine a firecracker scene between Alneesa and Miss Bernadette, who openly calls Tino's aunt "a heartless, abusive bitch." These two characters never connect in the play but have a tremendous impact on Tino's life and are polar opposites regarding Tino.

Local stage veteran Yolanda Wood Stange is a powerhouse as Miss Bernadette. Gifted with the most interesting material, Wood Stange embraces the audience with her vivid and warm portrayal. Miss Bernadette is an endearing woman, though you might simultaneously have fear and love toward her. Equally impressive is Michelle Love-Day as Alneesa, who instinctively knows how far to take her villain character. Alneesa could be a good woman but has been pushed beyond her limits by situations, along with a parental role she never sought out.

Director Alicia M. Washington of Ogden's Good Company Theatre (which recently successfully staged the culture-themed IN THE HEIGHTS) acutely understands the play and is largely responsible for its success. She has well-coached young first-time actors Clinton Bradt (who alternates with Devin Losser) as Tino and Jenna Newbold (alternating with Kiara Riddle) as Deja. The characters' physical mannerisms are in place, and the actors appear remarkably comfortable on stage. Brandt impresses in his inquiring, first church visit and a heated debate with a teacher, when he alone correctly responds to a quiz answer, and is then suspended by the principal. Newbold's character is playful but determined.

Also to be commended are Thomas George for his detailed multi-roomed, highly functional set, with the church's small contemporary stained-glass window, illuminated throughout (by light designer William Peterson); and costume designer Katie Rogel, who noteworthly gives Tino a single, too-large belt she has duplicated for each costume change.