Sitting in the shadows during a weekend performance of Portland Stage’s “Lost Boy in Whole Foods,” the poet E.E. Cummings haunted me:
a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat
fate per a somewhat more than less
had in return for consciousness
endowed him with a changeless grin
whereon a dozen staunch and leal
citizens did graze at pause
then fired by hypercivic zeal
sought newer pastures or because
swaddled with a frozen brook
of pinkest vomit out of eyes
which noticed nobody he looked
as if he did not care to rise
one hand did nothing on the vest
its wideflung friend clenched weakly dirt
while the mute trouserfly
confessed a button solemnly inert.
Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars.
Cummings’ famous poem, a surreal take on the Gospel of Luke and the parable of the Good Samaritan, seemed apropos to the play written by Tammy Ryan and directed by Markus Potter, which was unfolding before the packed house on Forest Ave.
In 2004-5, in Pittsburgh, Pa. we find the aftermath of devastation in the aisles of Whole Foods grocery store, where the affluent, recent white divorcee Christine (Mhari Sandoval) runs into Sudanese refugee shelf-stocker and night college student Gabriel (Tyrone Davis, Jr.).
The plight of the Lost Boys of Sudan is now the stuff of near-legend: tens of thousands of refugees, having to walk for years from their homeland to safety in Kenya and Ethiopia to escape the violence of civil war, first from 1983-2005, and then again from 2011-13 when war flared up again.
In a bizarre and eyebrow-raising twist of events, Christine feels a rush of guilt and invites Gabriel to dinner. Later, as a way to continue her contribution to the refugee cause, she invites him to move in with her and 16 year-old daughter Alex (Casey Turner).
Along the way we are also treated to Gabriel’s other contacts like his former case worker Michael Dolan (J.P. Guimont), refugee program coordinator Segel Mohammed (Chantal Jean-Pierre), and Gabriel’s best refugee buddy from back home, Panther (Jamil A.C. Mangan).
The question of Christine further contributing to Sudanese relief efforts via increased volunteerism becomes central, as does the maturing of Alex – the play’s subtle moral compass – over the year-long course of events, along with the legality of Panther’s extracurricular activities. Several scenes are also played out in Gabriel’s imagination, and Christine’s memory.
This play, as presented by Portland Stage Company, has a lot going for it.
The best is the acting. The entire cast flourished in the struggles of class, race, and humanity – hot-button topics which enhanced the play’s overall relevance, perhaps importantly, during an election year.
Davis’ humility and gratitude as Gabriel in his adopted country was beautifully palpable, just as Mangan’s anger and annoyance as Panther rightly exuded force and near-intimidation.
Guimont and Jean-Pierre both played the complementary role of officialdom convincingly, the former having left the refugee cause, the latter knee-deep in it. Each served as a societal contrast to the other: caring yet resigned versus active and militant.
Also: the set design. Portland Stage’s executive and artisitic director Anita Stewart supervised a creative force of time and place that starts as a kitchen but through the judicious and aesthetic excellence of lights by Cory Pattak, sound by Mark Van Hare, special effects by Eric Anderson, and props by Stacey Koloski, transforms from one minute to the next, taking the audience on a feast of the senses.
Importantly, to assist in these effects, Portland Stage used video integration technology, which is gradually picking up steam in theatres nationwide. It’s smart, it’s cutting edge, and Ms. Stewart’s charges used it to perfection.
Kathleen Brown’s costumes impressed and Myles C. Hatch as stage manager delivered the show’s logistics flawlessly.
The one blip? Aside from the implausible scenario in which Ms. Ryan’s play puts us–which can be excused for creative license– she has, in the six years since its world premiere, made only nominal efforts to address the one widely acknowledged critical issue of “Lost Boy”: overt ideological preaching.
It’s not the position taken that doesn’t fit; it’s two instances when Segel and Christine sound more like politicians on the trail, and less like their characters should sound.
Someone of Ms. Ryan’s considerable talents must exit the blue-state echo chamber of her consciousness – much like Wendy Wasserstien did in her final play before dying of cancer, “Third,” where she brazenly bucked her own belief system to deliver a warning of hubris to her progressive world.
Still, at show’s end, the audience, within seconds, jumped to its feet, with tears flowing freely.
So despite Ms. Ryan’s need to iron out those few “tell don’t show” interjections in her script, there is a reason why the end reaction is so positive.
“Lost Boy” raises a number of disturbing yet all-too human questions: What are the limits of human responsibility in aiding the downtrodden? Can we ever really understand, without first-hand experience, the depths of horror into which war, genocide, and unbridled power thrust their victims? What role can tradition and faith play in healing the survivors? Is there really a solution to all the above, or are the means of striving for a cure far more important than the seemingly impossible ends of attaining it?
E.E. Cummings, after all, knew something of this. In World War I, as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, he not only lived the daily meat-grinder of death, but also found futility in trying to aid those in it, only to see them emerge in their next life as damaged goods with no chance at repair.
This is why you must go see this play. Because in the current showing of “Lost Boy,” Portland Stage leaves us with hope, not despair. Resolve, not guilt. Empathy, not pity.
And the desire to lift those up who cannot stand on their own – who are broken – even if we must stagger banged with terror through a galaxy of shattered dreams.
“Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” runs through March 20 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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