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Bleeding hearts, family foibles in comedy crosshairs

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In her search for social justice, Val has found a Lost Boy of Sudan and taken him into her comfortable home in River Heights as one of the family.

Her charitable act is the catalyst for an engaging new comedy by Winnipegger Trish Cooper, who is seriously intent on examining issues of loss, expectations and the personal cost of doing the right thing.

Everyone in the 135-minute piece, which had its première at Prairie Theatre Exchange Thursday, has admirable intentions that are no match for the complications they don't see coming. Cooper, in her first full-length work, offers an entertaining lesson about a family trying to be good but, amusingly, not always getting it right.

Val, a middle-aged do-gooder, is serving as a substitute mother for Deng, who was one of 20,000 young boys who made a gruelling 1,600-kilometre trek to Ethiopia and safety from the Sudanese civil war. Her 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, provides all that background material as part of her school assignment in social studies, which, like the play, focuses on people in relation to one other and the world in which they live.

The trio's domestic peace is interrupted by the arrival of emotional older daughter Jackie, seeking sanctuary after the sudden breakup of her marriage. She expects to slip right back into her former position in the family's arms, but is surprised to learn it has been given away.

"What is a Deng?" she asks, when told that her room is now occupied by one of the Lost Boys who came to North America in the late '80s, seeking peace, freedom and education.

The ever-smiling and polite Deng embraces her warmly, calling her sister. It is Jackie who seems like the refugee, driven from her home by a marital war that has left her angry, broken and jobless.

Earth mother Val won't allow Jackie to feel sorry for herself -- not while Deng, a straight-A university student, has rebounded so impressively from personal tragedy. All Jackie wants to do is lie on the couch, munch on potato chips and carp about Saint Deng.

Cooper, in an impressive debut, has a lot of fun at the expense of her middle-class, white characters by sending them up as silly, petty and hopelessly entitled. Val can't believe that Deng hasn't heard of '70s pop act Captain and Tennille, whose hit song Love Will Keep Us Together is probably her theme song. Pretty, blond, blue-eyed Sarah calls herself "one of the least drunk girls I know." Jackie turns to the proven first-world cure of retail therapy to get her out of her funk.

Deng, too, draws laughs in the way his explanations get lost in translation, although his strident homophobia comes through loud and clear. Some of the jokes are pedestrian and even predictable, which was obvious when someone in the opening-night audience voiced the punchline before the actor.

The playwright eventually leads Social Studies to a darker place in the second act, when the character's principles are tested and easily discarded for the sake of expediency, suspicions are acted upon and secrets are revealed. Director Robert Metcalfe keeps a tight rein on the script, creating an easy flow while ensuring maximum impact.

Metcalfe's local cast also brought expectations and surprises. Marina Stephenson Kerr, who plays the well-meaning Val, and Alix Sobler, the scheming Jackie, are known quantities who can be counted on to bring rich texture and nuance to the stage. In Social Studies, Stephenson Kerr deftly sells the way Val's social consciousness becomes compromised when her protective maternal instincts kick in. Sobler's challenge is to portray the less likable character, but she succeeds in making Jackie the one the audience most identifies with.

What's unforeseen is the quality work of newcomers Jenna Hill, as curious Sarah, and Richie Diggs as the mysterious Deng. Hill, the younger sister of Broadway star Samantha Hill, brings an easy naturalness to her PTE debut, highlighted by a challenging drunk scene she nails. In his first professional appearance, Diggs -- a University of Winnipeg theatre program graduate whose family is originally from Liberia -- infuses Deng with an appealing exotic dignity, but yet seems unknowable. His smile and geniality mask the horrors of Deng's past.

Val attempts to find Deng a place in her middle-class world and, despite her pure motives, gets lost too. The result of all her attempts to help the less fortunate is that Deng has graduated from Lost Boy to lost man.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 G10

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