Hopkins' 'Good Times' gets the details right

February 25, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Lynda Barry's semi-autobiographical play about growing up in an inter-racial neighborhood in the '60s, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," contains so much popular music of the period that it's easy to imagine it as a musical. But the play, which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at Theatre Hopkins, bears an even stronger similarity to a comic strip.

This is hardly surprising since the playwright is first and foremost a cartoonist, best known for "Ernie Pook's Comeek," which is published in many alternative papers.

Like a comic strip, "The Good Times" -- whose protagonist is a young white teen-ager named Edna Arkins -- is highly episodic. Some of the episodes are small, but telling, such as the one in which Edna's black neighbor, Bonna, comes over to see her record player, defying Edna's mother's rule about "no Negroes in the house." Other episodes are larger and more hard-hitting, such as the one in which Edna and her younger sister are briefly shipped off to relatives when her father leaves her mother.

Together, these episodes create a gently poignant picture of an inter-racial friendship whose ups and downs, intensified by the turbulence of adolescence, seem intended as a microcosm of race relations during the formative years of the civil rights movement.

Thematically, this is a tall order. And in many ways the play's production requirements -- including specific period details, numerous settings and two dozen characters -- are a tall order for Theatre Hopkins. Yet, the result feels more satisfying in Theatre Hopkins' extremely intimate setting than it did last season at Washington's Ford's Theatre, a venue which, while relatively small, is considerably more imposing.

Unlike Ford's production, Theatre Hopkins uses adults in the two key roles. Although Leisa Kelley's Edna initially seems a bit too precious, she effectively captures her character's sense of teen-age wonder and longing. As tough-talking Bonna, Laura Sligh offers a strong contrast to innocent Edna, but Sligh also lets us see the vulnerable interior under Bonna's hard shell.

Some of the supporting cast members are less convincing. Barbara Blair makes Edna's snooty aunt too much of a cartoon, and the Valley Girl vocal inflections used by Eileen Moriarity and Erin Jakowski belong to the wrong decade.

For the most part, though, director Suzanne Pratt gets Barry's details right -- from the claustrophobic cacophony of six kids jammed in the back of a station wagon to the subtle demarcations teen-agers establish to separate cool from corny.

As to Barry's attempt to draw a parallel between the fumbling struggles of teen-age friendships and the races' efforts to relate to each other in the '60s, this is an awfully heavy load for a relatively light domestic drama to bear. But it's a measure of the effectiveness of Theatre Hopkins' production that it leaves you wondering how much -- or if -- we've grown up in the interim.

"Good Times Are Killing Me"

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. March 13 and 2:15 p.m. Sundays. Through March 20

Tickets: $8 and $10

Call: (410) 516-7159

** 1/2

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