Social Studies, Tricia Cooper’s intriguing play at the Centaur until Nov. 30. is an ultimately sad and fragmented socio-political comedy about a young Sudanese boy who has been transplanted from war torn Africa to a comfortable suburban Winnipeg neighbourhood. Most of the laughs in the play, however, derive from cultural misunderstandings rather than genuine comic dialogue. The evening opens with a self-centered character, Jackie, (Eleanor Noble) running back home to her mother after a failed marriage, only to be told by her younger sister, Sarah (Emily Tognet) that her old room is taken. Their mother, Val (Jane Wheeler) a United Church “do-gooder” with a social conscience has adopted Deng, a so-called Lost Boy from Sudan whose family has been slaughtered in the civil wars. Deng now lives in Jackie’s old room. The contrived plot focuses on a refugee trying to fit into a dysfunctional family with added pressure of economic disparity and moral and ethical differences.
Jaa Smith Johnson, a recent graduate of Dawson’s Professional Theatre Program makes an impressive stage debut as Deng, whose broad smile masks the hurt of heartbreak in his eyes. We are tipped off early to the problems that are about to engage this frustrated foursome when we learn that Deng has been given an unsolicited credit card and that Jackie too has problems managing her own personal finances. Deng is the product of a puritan culture and is aghast when he sees two men on television making love, and even more aghast when Sarah tries to seduce him. The play is topical and the playwright’s heart is in the right place. There are moments In this sometimes uneven production when you question what constitutes a family, and what it means to be altruistic, hospitable and forgiving. It also puts our perceived values on trial. The script though ignores several important details, the most vexing of which in the crucial plot turn is why any responsible adult would allow someone without a valid driver’s license to get behind the wheel of a car.
Director Paul Van Dyck brings an unusual perspective to the work – he ran out of money and endured a bout of Malaria in the Sudan and only survived because of the wellspring of kindness he found in that country. Emily Tognet, who also narrates a visually arresting power point presentation as a class project which fills in Deng’s back story is a winsome Sarah even when she is intoxicated. Eleanor Noble is annoyingly shrill as the resentful and devious older sister and never manages to infuse the role with any of the sensitivity necessary to make her sympathy in the end believable. Jane Wheeler anchors the production as the crunchy granola mother who believes in group hugs, yoga and garrulous blessings as a cure all for all of life’s problems.
Designer Evita Karasek ‘s split level suburban River Heights home with an upstairs bedroom is practical and soul-powered music drives the evening along.