GOODNESS by Michael Redhill (Volcano/Tarragon). Runs to November 27. See Continuing for details. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
In Goodness, playwright Michael Redhill and director Ross Manson won't let us sit back and watch a play. Rather, they thrust us into a basement-like room (a great cracked-paint design by Teresa Przybylski , lit by Rebecca Picherack ) with the actors and the characters, needling us to examine our values and attitudes toward evil, self-justification and survival. It's often postmodern, with actor Jordan Pettle identifying himself as a performer and then presenting himself as a writer named Michael Redhill who, after a messy divorce, searches for family members lost during the Holocaust. Rebuffed there as well, he ends up in England questioning Althea ( Lili Francks ), a woman who recounts her own genocide experiences in an unnamed country.
In a riveting, tense, unflinching production, Manson and his company present a story-within-a-story, with touches of Pirandello. In it, listener Redhill is as active as Althea, the storyteller. We're caught up not only with the story of her past, but also with his involvement as interpreter of the story; is it possible, the playwright asks implicitly, for us to hear any tale and not give it a subjective twist?
The narrative involves Mathias Todd ( Victor Ertmanis ), an intellectual whose theories spearheaded the genocide. But now, about to be tried for a single murder, he might have Alzheimer's; a conviction would be morally iffy. Althea introduces her younger self ( Tara Hughes ), Todd's jailer; his daughter Julia ( Bernadeta Wrobel ) and the prosecutor, Stephen ( Jack Nicholsen ).
Part mystery, part ethical dilemma, the play grabs us from the start in this fine staging, with Pettle's initially open, idealistic writer a fine conduit for audience access to the story and the predicaments it raises. Nicholsen creates a sardonic, vengeful Stephen, while Ertmanis's splendid Todd jumps between pitiable weakness and inflammatory oratory. Francks is especially impressive as the wary older Althea, teaching Redhill that no one can "own an atrocity." She won't let him off the hook, emotionally or intellectually.
The other two women, Wrobel and Hughes, work hard but lack dramatic weight and fail to imbue their characters with all the ambiguities that are in the text. They blend beautifully, though, in the a cappella musical sections that sound designer John Gzowski and music director Brenna MacCrimmon have set on the cast.
Goodness asks questions, making us think without supplying easy answers. Just as the last musical section ends on an unresolved note, so do the issues that Redhill presents so provocatively. It's a thrilling piece of theatre, raising issues you'll be debating long after you've left the Tarragon.