At the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5, 2015
Posted November 29, 2015
Canadian playwright Trish Cooper could not possibly have known how timely this Firehall Arts Centre production in Vancouver would be just as the country is poised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Social Studies, about a Winnipeg woman who takes in a Sudanese “lost boy”, first appeared in Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) festival of new plays in 2012, several years before the massive and tragic migration of refugees began. Cooper’s own mother opened the doors to her home to a young Sudanese man but there, writes the playwright, the similarity to Social Studies ends.
Best known for sketch comedy, Cooper writes sharp, snappy dialogue that definitely sounds like a family in turmoil. Val (Susinn McFarlen) has recently taken in Sudanese refugee Deng (Richie Diggs) when her married daughter Jackie (Erin Moon) throws in the towel with her husband and comes back home to live. Val has not only given him Jackie’s old bedroom but has given him unlimited use of her car. Observing all this is teenaged Sarah (Lili Beaudoin).
This is classic kitchen sink realism with a classic realistic set by Alison Green: kitchen with fridge and sink, dining room table, couch (on which Jackie now has to sleep) and a cut-away upstairs bedroom – her old bedroom – where Deng sleeps. There’s something about childhood bedrooms that’s sacred: we expect them to remain forever and ever as they were when we left home and feel betrayed when they’re turned into a sewing room, study or, worst of all, when they’re given to someone else.
Directed by Donna Spencer, these are four excellent performances: McFarlen’s Val is slightly old hippie (grace at the table concludes with “Namaste” and she’s into group drumming) and so big-hearted. Unfortunately Val’s heart is two sizes too big and she has raised one selfish, self-centred daughter who thinks the world revolves around her. Moon makes Jackie so unlovable it’s a wonder anyone puts up with her. She claims her “hotness” has increased during the brief marriage while the ex-husband just got “old and fat” and is involved with “a chemist that looks like a yoga instructor”. Richie Diggs reprises the role of Deng from the full PTE production in 2013. Deng brings sweet bewilderment to the role as Deng struggles with language and Canadian values. In his country, he says, homosexuality “is not good.” He doesn’t like women who drink and curse – and these three women do both; he expects women to feed him and he eats a lot. Val is spending her “lady vacation money” keeping all four of them fed. Deng clearly comes from a patriarchal society and Canada comes as a bit of a shock.
Beaudoin, who enjoys playing younger than her years, is a very credible teenager. Caught in the middle, Sarah doesn’t really know whom to support. Beaudoin rides this edge expertly when Sarah, confusing friendship with, possibly, sexual attraction, throws yet another spanner into the works.
The framing mechanism is interesting and informative: Sarah is giving a slide show presentation to her class – The Lost Boys of Sudan and we learn quite a bit about the tragedy unfolding there. When Deng finally breaks down and tells us what he’s been through, it’s heartbreaking.
But at two and a half hours long, Cooper’s play is too long. There’s simply too much in here and the payoff – although funny and touching – isn’t enough.
The success of this production is in the performances and here they are first-rate. Social Studies classes back in highschool were much the same: too much material but some wonderful reenactments by teachers with a passion for the subject.