If The Spirit Moves You

Good Goods, new playwright Christina Anderson’s Yale Rep debut currently onstage, is an old-fashioned play, with a plot that turns upon realizations that alter the status quo for each of the five main characters. As such it’s classic drama, and much of its success depends upon the audience making realizations with the characters.  They talk themselves and us into an understanding of what’s at stake in the choices they make. At its heart, with a bravura performance by Angela Lewis, Good Goods explores the theme of possession—of oneself, of one’s goods (in every sense of the term), of one’s past and future—through a comic and cathartic sense of the uncanny. The play works because Anderson’s imagination participates about equally in the naturalistic and fabulistic features of drama.  Set in a mythic Anytown, USA (“a small town/village that doesn’t appear on any map”) in an indeterminate period (“1961 and 1994.  And everything in between.”), the play’s set consists of a hodgepodge General Store called Good Goods, after Mr. Good, the absent patriarch who has skedaddled, leaving behind the family business, now looked after by his faithful factotum Truth (you see at once how symbolic this can get) and his son Stacey, a thirtyish entertainer called home from the comedy circuit where he teams as an act with local gal Patricia, who soon enough turns up to find out what the future of the act will be.

Stacey and Truth are a grudging team maintaining the store, as the play opens, with undercurrents familiar from folktale struggles of a legitimate son and an illegitimate son over a blessing.  Patricia and Stacey were once a team—we might imagine as both a performing and a romantic duo—but there’s triangulation afoot: Patricia’s twin brother Wire (who seems at least five years younger than her in demeanor) has romantic inclinations toward Stacey, who may reciprocate them.  Finally, before you can say “Beloved,” a young, naïve ingenue named Sunny turns up, a winsome pick-up for Patricia, only to undergo a diabolical alteration for a hair-raising curtain at Intermission.

Sunny becomes possessed by the spirit of a man from a local family, the Evanses, noted, thanks to a late-lamented seer amongst them called Ivory, for its history of prophecy and for a high-toned sense of persecution.  The man, Emekah, dies off-stage in an accident at the pencil factory—itself a darkly referred to entity that seems to stand both for economic progress in this rural backwater but also soul-enslaving drudgery.  Both bemused and aroused by finding himself in the body of this fine young thing, Emekah rants and froths and aims to do all kinds of harm.  The forthright foursome must put their heads together to overcome this threat from beyond, which they do with their sense of humor and romantic possibility intact, and with help from the local Hunter Priestess—herself a spirit now inhabiting a likeable fellow named Waymon.

The play manages to keep its folk motifs and magical realism in play without overwhelming its grasp of a plausible sort of everyday reality.  This in itself is no mean feat and indicates, in Anderson, a grasp of drama as not so much a window on the world as it is or was but rather as a realm of possibility where what people really want and are can become accessible through well-chosen devices.

One such device, Scenic Designer James Schuette’s set, is a pleasure to behold in its palpable thereness—and in its usefully divided linear space.  Toni-Leslie James’ costumes help support our uncertainty about “when” we are, and the overall presence of the visual components of the play keep us firmly grounded in a natural-feeling world shared by the likes of August Wilson and Tennessee Williams.  The cast, directed by Tina Landau with relaxed precision, complement well the visual purpose of the play—they all move and look and feel at home, and are able to speak Anderson’s ringing mouthfuls of phrase with, for the most part, suitable dispatch.

To the women go the more commanding roles—Lewis’s Sunny is scene-stealing after Intermission if a bit too cloying at first, and De’Adre Aziza, as Patricia, runs a fun gamut from steely to gleeful to smoldering to maternal and nurturing.  The main male role, for my money, is Truth, if only because the character is a bit inscrutable and, as played by Marc Damon Johnson, bears and speaks the dignity of common wisdom well; Clifton Duncan’s Stacey is a more problematic study; his identities as a black boss and as a gay man looking for love both seem in some sense unresolved, as if Anderson sees the importance of such a character but isn’t quite sure what to make him do or become; that said, the facet of his character I found least believeable was his role as a comedian, even if “a straight man.”  As Wire, Kyle Beltran seemed everyone’s younger brother—an early bit in which he tries to remind Truth that it’s his birthday seemed more suitable for someone proudly turning twenty-one rather than—with no apprehension?—thirty.  Finally, as Waymon, Oberon K. A. Adjepong adds a great stage presence to the Second Part as well as a gripping song of exorcism—with help from Sound Designer Junghoon Pi’s ghostly talking drums.

Good Goods not only makes us suspend our disbelief, it makes us believe in suspending reality, to make good on the potential of the past.

Good Goods by Christina Anderson Directed by Tina Landau

Yale Repertory Theatre February 3 to 25, 2012