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Modest play makes big impact

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Dylan Hewlett photo
Ray Strachan as Godfrey and Andrea Houssin as Hannah.

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Dylan Hewlett photo Ray Strachan as Godfrey and Andrea Houssin as Hannah.

GOOD Intentions, a topical new drama by emerging Winnipeg playwright Ginny Collins, follows a pair of well-meaning Canadians to South Africa to see if they're actually offering a hurting hand to the needy people they've come halfway across the world to help.

The central character is Hannah, an idealistic Jewish-Canadian doctor driven since medical school to spend her life doing good in parts of the globe that have long endured suffering. Her purpose is "tikkum olam" -- Hebrew for repairing or healing the world -- which refers to the Jewish obligation to fix what is broken in society. After meeting Peter, a non-Jewish economics student, at university, the two take up residence in a rural South African village. She runs a small hospital with Godfrey, a local doctor in training, while Peter sits at home researching traditional trade systems that might not have been as backward as colonists first thought.

Over 75 minutes (no intermission), Collins deftly sets out a series of cultural differences that defy easy solutions and reveal the pitfalls of imposing the wisdom of westernization on the South African population, rather than allowing them to follow their own culture and customs, even if it involves witchcraft or social prejudice. The even-handedness of Collins' writing enables the audience to clearly see both sides of the argument.

Good Intentions is a compact work, economic in its finely tuned focus, reflected onstage with the kind of modest production values common to fringe festival offerings. A table and two chairs make up the set, with a rear horizontal screen that depicts the South African sky. The latter is included to offer something for the eye in what is not a very visually stimulating presentation helmed by WJT artistic director Michael Nathanson. Action is also in short supply, as all but one of the scenes involves dialogue between two of the characters. Only near the conclusion do the three characters briefly interact.

There are no bad guys in the first full-length play from the promising Collins, just people with an essential lack of knowledge about each other that will prove tragic. The outcome underlines the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The local cast serves the script ably, although no splashy performances are required. Andrea Houssin, in her hometown debut after recently graduating from Vancouver's Studio 58, provides a well-rounded portrait of a determined, committed woman who thinks that wanting to help is all she needs to make a difference. Hannah doesn't see the growing storm of hostility towards immigrants, who are made handy scapegoats for all the country's ills, that could imperil her work in South Africa.

Her flaw may make some in the audience think of the recent controversy that erupted after Manitoba's deputy premier Eric Robinson criticized a burlesque show fundraiser at the Osborne House women's shelter as inappropriate, calling it the "ignorance of do-good white people."

Peter, played by Jason Neufeld, represents another view from the community of good intentions. Neufeld subtly captures Peter's confusion about what he is doing in Africa and his willingness to cut and run when trouble threatens their security. He shows only self-interest and no concern for the villagers, who can't flee to the safety of Canada.

Ray Strachan is quietly compelling as the soft-spoken Godfrey, who is also finding it difficult to manoeuvre the cultural divide. He wants Hannah and Peter to understand that Africa despises the Western way of life, with all its greed and excess, but longs for it anyway. "We want our own ways, but we want what you have," he tells Peter.

Good Intentions offers a cautionary note to those inspired to help in developing countries who lack crucial cultural sensitivity, which ultimately undermines their capacity to do the good they intend to do.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2013 D3

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