‘Surely Goodness and Mercy’ at Redtwist: Dodging auntie, teaching teacher, shining light
“Surely Goodness and Mercy” by Chisa Hutchinson, rolling world premiere at Redtwist Theatre through March 18. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
It’s a singular experience to sit through what is essentially a feel-good play, and to reach the end with the sense that you’ve actually seen a genuine drama. Such is the rare form and substance of Chisa Hutchinson’s “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” offered by a splendid cast in the ideal intimacy of Redtwist Theatre.
Tino is a very bright 12-year-old from a tough neighborhood where his mother was killed shielding him from gun fire. Now he lives with his aunt, a cold woman who never wanted children of her own and treats Tino harshly. But the boy possesses a curiosity about the world that matches his intellect, and so he dwells blithely on a plane beyond his circumstances.
In his new school, he encounters Deja, a sympathetic classmate who’s drawn to Tino’s decency and intelligence — and fascinated by his oddity. He always speaks in full sentences with correct syntax. He knows a great deal about a lot of things. Deja has never seen the like of him.
Tino also comes under the watchful eye of an elderly and prickly worker in the school cafeteria, Bernadette, who unbeknownst to anyone is suffering from the swiftly worsening effects of MS. These three lives are about to become entangled through Tino’s determined benefaction, which prevails against the hard countering forces embodied in the boy’s bitter aunt.
What raises Hutchinson’s play above the predictable treacle of happily-ever-after is the complexity of her characters, the authentic stresses at work on them and, above all, the combination of intellectual spark and adolescent vulnerability that define Tino. And it is Donovan Session’s charged, fearless, even visionary performance as Tino that drives Redtwist’s endearing production.
Sessions is more than convincing as a 12-year-old: Front to back, he’s wholly believable as an exceptional child who is at once brilliant and compassionate, unshakably sure of himself yet hardly self-absorbed.
In a pivotal and telling classroom moment, Tino gets into a heated argument with his teacher over subject-verb agreement in a sentence. The teacher has it wrong but insists that she is right. She’s been teaching for a long time, whereas this disputatious boy is 12 years old. Tino, who will not concede a point on which he knows he is right, explodes, repudiates the teacher and lands in the principal’s office. His outburst gets him a two-day suspension and draws the wrath of his aunt.
If the incident hints at Asperger syndrome, the stronger implication is that Tino is simply more clever than his teacher. His mind is as tireless as it is sharp, and he soon turns it to a project of compassion: to find help for the lady in the cafeteria (Renee Lockett in a vividly etched portrait of worldly wisdom and rising pain), whose symptoms, Tino discovers, look a lot like MS.
The kid isn’t Super Man. He doesn’t cure her. In fact, he soon runs out of ideas. That’s where his new pal Deja (the slyly charming Charlita Williams) steps up with a concept that’s all new to Tino: online project funding. But when the cash begins to roll in, the boy’s resentful and ill-tempered aunt (Katrina D. RiChard sharpening a nasty edge on a brutal role) sees a slice for herself. This time, Tino’s better angels only bring him grief.
To variable effect, “Surely Goodness and Mercy” employs the dramatic device of characters interacting with people we hear but cannot see: the school principal, Tino’s teacher, the church minister. While the school figures sounded like robots reading, the preacher – Wardell Julius Clark, who also directs the show – offered quite moving homilies on charity and personal character, with youngsters Tino and Deja as his attuned, receptive audience.
The play’s title, of course, derives from the psalm that reads: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The old lady in the cafeteria adores the psalms, and when she’s hospitalized, Tino reads them to her. He also elicits her ire when he gets to the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
But as the woman discovers, Tino is a bringer of life: It abides and flourishes in him. He leaves you thinking that youth is perhaps not, after all, wasted on the young.
Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com