'Killing Me' softly portrays unconventional friendship

February 10, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON -- For a cartoonist whose sharp, socially conscious comic strips appear in alternative newspapers, Lynda Barry has made her playwrighting debut with a work that is surprisingly mainstream.

"The Good Times Are Killing Me," Barry's 1991 off-Broadway hit, which has been restaged at Ford's Theatre, is the story of a friendship between two pre-adolescent girls, one white and the other black, in the 1960s.

It's a subject potentially laced with tension, but the result, directed by Mark Brokaw -- who also staged the New York premiere -- is tame enough to merit the designation "for kids of all ages."

Not that there's anything wrong with a kids' show, mind you, and the child actors in this one are polished to a high gloss. It's just that the berries in Barry's cartoons tend to be raspberries; on stage, she delivers bubble gum.

One thing the play excels at, however, is capturing the speech and thought patterns of that awkward species, the preteen. The action is narrated by the young protagonist, Edna Arkins, a young white girl with a rich fantasy life.

At one point, Edna imagines being interviewed on television, and the TV format is not unlike the structure of this show. Twelve-year-old actress Bridget Barkan -- who has mastered a ++ gigantic role, though she sometimes mistakes preciousness for innocence -- addresses the audience directly, almost as if responding to an interviewer's questions.

Edna's main subject is chronicling her relationship with her best friend, Bonna Willis, a black girl whose family moves into the Arkins' uneasily integrated urban blue-collar neighborhood. As played by precocious LaShonda Hunt, Bonna is such a tough-minded spitfire, she makes it easy to share Edna's fascination and admiration.

Their friendship is filled with incidents -- some minor, such as being shunned by Edna's snobby older cousin Ellen, and some major, such as Edna's parents' divorce or the racial peer pressure that threatens the girls' bond. But despite the differences in weight and consequence of these events, they are presented with an unlikely sameness.

Edna relates everything to popular music -- a frame of reference reinforced by designer Rusty Smith's set, in which 45-rpm records decorate surfaces ranging from the exterior walls of houses to the blue sky. Indeed, the musical references may help explain the mild nature of the proceedings, since, with the exception of an occasional eye-opening spiritual or hint of soul music, Edna's taste runs to the Everly Brothers and Paul Anka.

Although a few minor characters are as thin as, well, cartoons, most of the larger supporting roles are better defined.

Skillful performances are delivered by the adults, including Holly Felton and Kevin Chamberlin as Edna's parents, and Harriet D. Foy and Baltimore native James Stovall as Bonna's parents; and the children, especially Marisa Stewart and Joey Allen as Edna and Bonna's younger siblings, respectively.

Center Stage originally announced "The Good Times Are Killing Me" as part of its current season, only to lose the rights to Ford's. Maybe a different production by a different director would have mined more edge from the text.

At Ford's, however, you have to keep reminding yourself that Barry is the artist credited with being the largest influence on another alternative cartoonist, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening. These "Good Times" are a lot closer to "Peanuts" than to Groening's "Life in Hell."

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Good Times Are Killing Me."

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington, D.C.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 1 p.m. Thursdays (except tomorrow), 2 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through March 21.

Tickets: $23-$32.

Call: (202) 347-4833.

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