GOODNESS by Michael Redhill, directed by Ross Manson, with Victor Ertmanis, Lili Francks, Tara Hughes, Jack Nicholsen, Jordan Pettle and Bernadeta Wrobel. Presented by Volcano and Tarragon at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (October 23), opens Tuesday (October 25) and runs to November 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday (except October 22) 2:30 pm. $24-$29, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $16. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Nearly every time an actor appears onstage, he or she lies to the audience. Think about it. A performer impersonates someone else, pretending to be King Lear or Eva Peron or Frodo Baggins. Things get a lot more reality-complicated in Michael Redhill's Goodness. Actor Jordan Pettle introduces himself as playwright Michael Redhill, speaks lines in Redhill's voice that acknowledge Pettle to be his stand-in and then goes on to tell a story about Redhill's ugly divorce.
The speaker takes us on an uncomfortable visit to Poland to explore the loss of his family in the Holocaust and then to England, where Redhill meets Althea, a woman who has also faced an attempted genocide.
In a series of time-shifting tales-within-tales, with actors stepping in and out of roles, Redhill explores what it means to tell, or even know, the truth, and who is able to tell the truth to another.
At the narrative core of the piece is a man who might have instigated the actions that wiped out Althea's family. But since he has Alzheimer's and can't recall his past - or can he? - should he stand trial for murder?
"Part of what the script suggests is that it's impossible to listen to an objective story without projecting your own psychology, your own emotional life, onto it," says Pettle, whose stage work includes Zadie's Shoes, Waiting For Godot, The Long Valley and Essay.
"Michael listens to Althea's story through the filter of his own marriage breakup, and when she introduces a character who resembles his ex, he gives a subjective twist to Althea's history and what it's about.
"Is it now Michael's story, or is it still Althea's?"
"A lot of the play is about who can tell a story, and whose story it then becomes," adds Lili Francks, who plays the older Althea. "She's quite aware that her listener is taking her tragic story and making it his own, but she doesn't want to give up her narrative easily, especially to someone - a writer - who might use it for his own purposes."
The playwright is conscious that the audience, which is sometimes directly acknowledged and addressed, might stand in for Michael, listening to his play and giving it a specific reading. He's intentionally vague about details.
Even the casting fits into this idea of keeping the tale universal. Francks, whose work includes The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God, El Paso and Consecrated Ground, is black; Althea's younger self is played by a white actor.
"That resonates with the theme of the piece," nods Francks, "for the audience can't say that something is exactly what they expect it to be."
"The author keeps subverting our need to identify things," agrees Pettle. "My character keeps asking Althea where the story takes place, but he's never told.
"That keeps the audience off-balance about 'us' and 'them.' The play suggests that at some level, there's no such group as the 'other. '"
It's hard talking about a play that keeps shifting its narrative and emotional points of reference. In performance the actors have to be clear about which reality they're in at any given moment as they move viewers from one story point to the next.
"Yet it offers no clear answers about the nature of good and evil, or whether any group has the right to claim an atrocity like genocide as solely its own," notes Francks. "What the playwright asks, in a tantalizing way, are two questions: why do good people rush to do evil, and what do they become?"