Keen Company, in its 19th season, winner of both Drama Desk and Obie Awards, specifically focuses on plays that uplift the human experience and raise the bar of how we should be in this world, telling stories of people who strive to live with integrity and project optimism... Surely Goodness and Mercy, now playing at Theatre Row, is one of those plays.
"Could we maybe go to a church on Sunday?" Tino (Jay Mazyck) asks his aunt Alneesa (Sanita Covington played her so well that I really didn't like the aunt, as a person).
Tino is a different 12-year old boy who dresses awkwardly, is too smart for his peers, and has begun to read the bible as a way to understand and make sense of the hardships he is living with. His mother was killed as she literally took a bullet for him in their Newark, New Jersey neighborhood, and he is forced to live with an aunt who never wanted kids as they would interfere with the life she wanted to live. He never knew his father. He doesn't fit in at school. His only friend there is the lady that dishes up lunch on a divided tray, Miss Bernadette (played with humor, prickly strength and compassion by Brenda Pressley). When something is being served for lunch that Tino doesn't like, Bernadette manages to fix him something special while still keeping her gruff barbed outer shell. When Bernadette's health begins to fail, Tino, with the help of a new friend, Deja (played with a frightened protective sweetness by Courtney Thomas) band together to bring some compassion to her plight.
The young debut actor Jay Mazyck as Tino is charming and compelling, exuding a warmth and compassion that reaches right out into the audience.
It's a heartwarming story about doing good in the world and how that good keeps building and creating more good. It's a wonderful part of our human experience that is often overlooked today. But I do have some caveats about recommending this wholeheartedly despite excellent acting and the story of the play.
Some scenes in Chisa Hutchinson's script are a flash, more a moment than a full fledged scene which leaves the period the actors need to get to the next scene about the same amount of time. Other scenes are prolonged to the point of tedium and they become jarring as they break up the pace and tempo of the piece, not adding forward movement to the story. As an analogy, this play feels as if it is being told sitting down in a comfortable chair, when it should be shared standing up at a fierce pace.
If theatre is in our lives, “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” we need this kind of reflection where cynicism and crassness insult us daily. There is both room and need for plays like Surely Goodness and Mercy to present us the better angels of our nature.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
"Chisa Hutchinson’s “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” at Theater Row, takes its title from Psalms, the section of the Bible that — if we’re to believe the show’s curmudgeonly but kindhearted lunch lady, Bernadette — is where all the good book’s bangers are. And though this morality play has its collection basket full of tokens of charity, it still feels withholding. Under Jessi D. Hill’s direction, the 95-minute Keen Company production moves quickly, in a series of gasp-like three- or four-minute scenes. But the plot is fairly bare-bones..."
Maya Phillips for New York Times