Christina Anderson’s DRA ’11 “Good Goods,” in its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of Tina Landau ’84, is ambitious in its narrative scope. According to her program notes, Anderson has created a world with no definite geographical place or historical timing that is haunted by an ambiguous catastrophe. This ambition, though adroitly acted by a brilliant cast of six and served by a smart, creative staff, has a hard time standing on its own without the aid of those program notes.
The play is set in a non-specific Southern town, in a non-specific year between 1961 and 1994, and begins with no backstory provided. An “invasion,” referenced obliquely throughout the course of the play, has cut the characters and their town off from phone service but curiously still allows bus service and deliveries of goods to the general store. The only two discernible landmarks in the town are the general store — named “Good Goods” after the owner’s last name — and a “pencil factory.” The factory, Anderson noted, is not necessarily a purveyor of pencils but instead “whatever you think it is.”
The themes of possession and materialism run rampant through the play: the store’s senior employee, Truth, is preternaturally concerned with theft; Stacey, the son of the original owner, wants to own the shop for himself; the other half of Stacey’s former comedy duo, Patricia, wants to own her own life; and Sunny, a vagabond who arrived on the bus with Patricia, becomes possessed by the spirit of a recently-deceased factory worker.
The interest of the play lies in the interplay between realism and the supernatural. The play begins in the realm of the real, but the logic of the play’s reality is not given sufficient explanation.
The nature of the mysterious “invasion,” how each character arrived back in town and the nature of their relationships are all hinted at, but never fully explained. To be clear: it isn’t the lack of explicit exposition that weakens the play, but without any explanation, the arbitrary restrictions on each character’s mobility and communication feel contrived. Even the specter of the factory, as open-ended as Anderson tries to keep it, looks false and plastic behind the foreground of the general store. As a result, the elements of the supernatural that enter the world of the play feel cheapened.
Where Anderson’s script fails, the cast and crew succeed with aplomb. Landau, who co-authored a text explaining her theory of physical acting with director Anne Bogart in the late 70s, titled “The Viewpoints Book,” did brilliant work with her cast: The actors are truly phenomenal, especially considering that all six made their Rep debut with this show. Of note are the actors playing Sunny/Emeka and Hunter Priestess/Waymon (Angela Lewis and Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who showed incredible agility in switching between their two respective characters in scenes of spiritual possession. They embodied the nuances of the characters with such boldness and completeness that each moment of transformation was perfectly distinct and believable. Of course, this was to be expected — Landau literally wrote the book on the development of physical character.
The sharp changes in character and reality were well served by Scott Zielinski’s DRA ’90 lighting design, which created surreal breaks from reality through color and directionality. The timeless costumes of Toni-Leslie James kept the production connected to some sort of reality. Aside from the smoke-belching “factory” in the background of the set created by James Schuette DRA ’89, the production was visually well-integrated and up to the Rep’s customarily high standards.
But in spite of the play’s great beauty, wide-ranging narrative and brilliant creative team, the objection remains: A play must communicate fully with its audience without the aid of its program notes. Especially in the case of mainstream theater, audience members should not have to contribute their own time and work to the research process — the production should stand on its own. Thus, rather than provoking thought with its loose ends, “Good Goods” only prompted questions that were ultimately left unanswered.