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A CurtainUp Review
Surely, Goodness and Mercy
Set in Newark, New Jersey, the play brings before us a devoutly religious boy Tino (Jay Mazyck) with a photographic memory who befriends a crotchety old lunch lady at an under-funded school. In spite of their age difference and contrasting temperaments, Tino and Bernadette (Brenda Pressley) curiously bond and help each other to survive in their impoverished setting. But when hard-luck hits, threatening to undo each of them, their friendship gains a new miraculous dimension.
The unlikely friendship between Tino and the lunch lady isn't the only one taking root at school, however. Tino meets a classmate named Deja (Courtney Thomas) who takes a shine to him, and though she's puzzled at first over why he should care about a lunch lady, she eventually sees Bernadette through Tino's eyes.
The acting is definitely the production's strong suit. Jay Mazyck plays the 12 year-old Tino with no trace of false sentimentality. Courtney Thomas, as Tino's friend Deja, projects a similar sincerity, with a soupcon of street smarts as well. While Mazyck and Thomas are obviously older than the characters they play, both manage to inject just enough innocence into their stage personas to be convincing.
In the key role of Bernadette, Brenda Pressley is ideally cast as the prickly old lunch lady. Pressley's Bernadette is a "big cheese" in her own bailiwick and never lets any of the students forget it.
Sarita Covington has the unenviable job of inhabiting Tino's Aunt Alneesa, an unreported child-abuser who bitterly resents raising her nephew after her sister's death in a neighborhood shoot-out. Covington manages to pull it off, however, with a lot of realism informing her performance.
Cezar Williams does double-duty in the roles of the Preacher and Principal. He's never visible on stage but certainly makes his presence known with his colorful proselytizing at the Metropolitan Church and level-headed judgments at school.
The production values don't measure up quite as well. The problem lies in Lee Savage's multi-leveled set which is far too busy. Savage follows the current trend of having the entire set on stage at once, allowing the lighting (by Devorah Kengmana) to cue us into each scene. While there are advantages to this one-set-fits-all concept, it doesn't quite gel in this production. There's simply too much furniture shoehorned into the available performing space.
The play is at its strongest in Act 2 in the hospital scene, in which we see Tino reading aloud from the 23rd Psalm with Bernadette lying completely still in her hospital bed. Although she is still on an intravenous drip and looks like she's in a coma, she suddenly stirs to life like a latter-day Lazarus. Before the startled Tino can catch his breath, Bernadette blurts out with her characteristic wit: "So you can quit reading me my last rites." The irony in this scene is delicious, and keeps any sentimentality at bay.
Hutchinson's dramaturgy isn't flawless. The relationship between Tino and Deja isn't fully developed and the denouement seems abrupt and the last line too pat. But there's no question that the playwright has a sharp ear for dialogue that sounds natural and flows well.
Although the diagnosis and cure for under-funded schools is never offered, and the whole boil of poverty is never lanced, Surely, Goodness and Mercy reminds us that a good deed for an unnoticed person can be the beginning of a better and more compassionate world. Perhaps that sounds a bit corny, but in this soulful play, it rings true.
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Surely Goodness and Mercy by Chisa Hutchinson
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Cast: Sarita Covington (Alneesa), Jay Mazyck (Tino), Brenda Pressley (Bermadette), Courtney Thomas (Deja/Teacher), and Cezar Williams (Preacher/Principal).
Sets: Lee Savage
Costumes: Nicole Wee
Sound: Sadah Espii Proctor
Lighting: Devorah Kengmana
Fight Director: Paul Molnar
Stage Manager: Jana Llynn
Theatre Row (at Clurman Theatre), 410 West 42nd Street, (between 9th and 10th Avenues). Tickets: $25-$80. Phone 844-379-0370 or online at www.keencompany.org
From 2/26/19; opening 3/13/19; closing 4/19/19.
Tues–Thurs at 7 PM, Fri at 8 PM, Sat at 2 PM & 8 PM, Sun at 3 PM; Additional matinee on Wednesday April 10th at 2pm.
Running time: 1 hour: 35 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/09/19
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