1st Stage’s The Good Counselor
Good, Rain or Shine
1st Stage is a suburban success story. A half-hour drive from Washington, DC, 1st Stage set up shop in 2008 in a warehouse on the edge of Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. A spanking new metro stop, within easy walking distance of the theatre, connects Tyson’s Corner to the city and the farther flung suburbs. The location of the theatre, in a warehouse complex which until recently had housed a hay and grain store to supply local horse farms, is ideal. Parking is free and abundant. The only problem is the tin roof.
During a recent rainstorm, 1st Stage’s riveting production of The Good Counselor, by Kathryn Grant, had to be stopped. On stage, Manu Kumasi, as Vicent, a small-town public defender, Deidra LaWan Starnes, as his mother Rita, and Bueka Uwemedimo, as the troubled son, Ray—gamely battled their way to the end of a compelling scene. Up to that point the acting had been first rate. As rain thundered down on the roof, it was heroic. To everyone’s credit, the audience was on the edge of their seats, straining to hear. Every word mattered. We were spellbound.
The play is well wrought, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and tender.
The story revolves around Evelyn, a young mother who is suspected of murder when her three-week-old son’s body is found in a bean field near her mobile home. The cause of death is asphyxiation. Vincent, the public defender assigned to Evelyn’s case, coaxes the truth out of her in bits and pieces throughout the play. At home, he contends with his brother Ray’s relapse into drug use and his eventual death. The likely cause: his mother’s neglect of Ray, in favor of her more delicate and eventually more successful son, Vincent.
Fierce, sympathetic, and thoroughly convincing, Dani Stoller as Evelyn Laverty is good enough to steal the show, but to do so would be impossible. All the acting is fine. Deidra LaWan Starnes’ Rita is unforgettable—she manages to be tough, funny, down-to-earth, and dignified, all at the same time.
The play is well wrought, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and tender. Director Alex Levy’s choices support all the play’s strengths. Levy keeps us focused on the stakes at hand by ending scenes with a blackout and a jarring noise that could be the sound of a cell door slamming. To counterbalance the potentially weighty talk about abstractions such as motherhood, responsibility, and justice, Levy creates dynamism using music and space. Ray and Rita sing together. A catwalk expands the space, breaks up the visual stasis, and allows for a lively and compelling flow. The catwalk serves as train trestle in one scene where Ray and Vincent narrowly avoid death. In the next, it’s a non-physical space; from his perch on the catwalk Ray speaks to Vincent as a voice in his head.
Kathryn Kaweki’s ingenious set divides the stage into clear locations. Below the sturdy catwalk is Vicent and Ray’s childhood home. The courtroom/office is on the opposite side of the stage. At its far edge is an outdoor memorial, where the action begins with Evelyn praying before a fence strewn with balloons and stuffed animals.
A set of simple questions drives the plot: Is Evelyn is guilty and, if so, to what extent? Can Vincent effectively defend her, which will require understanding his own family and his own privilege? Will Ray survive? What responsibility does Rita bear for his troubled present and past? But the play asks us to consider a much broader question, as well: why is the general public so incensed by a mother’s mistakes? Grant suggests cases such as Evelyn’s spark outrage because we all carry an image in our minds of the perfect mother. We speculate on how our lives would have turned out if we’d had that perfect mother rather than a mother of flesh and blood and failings.
The Good Counselor is an important play. Grant’s examination of the heated, righteous outrage directed at mothers and the harsh legal penalties exacted, in place of help or compassion, is timely. With the breakdown of community that is part of modern life, calling the police is often the first and only step a stranger will take when seeing a child in trouble or a mother acting questionably. In the Maryland suburbs of DC earlier this year, a mother and father, both scientists, were found guilty of neglect and put on probation for allowing their children to walk alone to the park. Another mother, lacking the resources and connections of that couple, went to jail for allowing her nine-year-old to play on a playground unsupervised. The child was put in foster care. The shift that has occurred in only a couple of generations is extreme. Children are much more protected. Mothers are pounced upon with a vengeance. In Evelyn’s case, if the community had been even half as concerned about her baby before he was dead, she might have had a crib for him to sleep in, and the baby would have survived.
Created by two former Fairfax County public school teachers who wanted to nurture young, local artists, 1st Stage in its first two seasons debuted the talent of nearly thirty actors, designers, and directors.
Bringing important work to DC’s Virginia suburbs and producing it nearly flawlessly, 1st Stage is breaking new ground. Created by two former Fairfax County public school teachers who wanted to nurture young, local artists, 1st Stage in its first two seasons debuted the talent of nearly thirty actors, designers, and directors. The night of the summer monsoon, if anyone was new to the work, you wouldn’t have guessed it. The lights went up. A staff member serenely announced an early intermission. The storm, for the most part, subsided. And the beautiful show went on.