Pittsburgh’s Tammy Ryan has come up with another highly original, provocative and evocative play and The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse makes it vividly alive thanks to director Sheila McKenna and a cast full of talent. The title is Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods which may sound as if suggesting something jocular or whimsical. But actually this is deeply serious and straightforward, far less quirky than A Confluence of Dreaming which The Rep staged in June of last year, that play full of symbolisms but deep with meaning. This 2010 work seems most to be storytelling but, within it, significant themes come forward.
Ryan here says much about a subject most of us have only slight knowledge, Sudan’s second civil war which preceded the genocide in Darfur. But this is not really a history lesson because the widespread brutality, deaths, terror-stricken migrations and escapes to refugee camps have gone on over and over in many parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world. Moreover, although Pittsburgh is the setting for the play, this too could take place elsewhere. Thus, fundamentally, Ryan deals with the vast divide between our own affluent culture and the struggle to survive in far-away third world societies. But Ryan does not lay a guilt trip on us, more into revelations than accusations. Less obvious, beneath the surface, she deals with the communality of family ties and with senses of self. She has created fine, thorough character development along with sincere and natural dialogue which speaks eloquently but directly. The result becomes a remarkable experience, given that she has gone deep into portraying the beliefs and rituals of a culture alien to average Americans.
Well-off single mother Christine encounters a young man named Gabriel working at Whole Foods. He is a refugee from Sudan and has found church and government- sponsored asylum in the U.S. She is drawn to him by his vulnerable charm and seeming joy in life, despite the hardships he has endured. She takes him into her home to share it with her rebellious, spoiled daughter Alexandria. Also in the story is Gabriel’s seemingly menacing older Sudanese tribal companion Panther. Christine wants to do all she can to help and support Gabriel. Eventually, Alexandria does too.
With Lost Boy in Whole Foods you can read internal meanings about the contrasts between Christine’s home life with Alexandria and the home life Gabriel had to flee. But Ryan does not seem to be a polemicist. She also gets engaged in telling us of the intricacies of practical complications behind making compassion turn into meaningful action and of the unpredictability of human nature which is neither black nor white. We witness the strong feelings of the characters, but from outside. Although intellectually understanding these people and what they represent, I didn’t find myself emotionally connected.
I was continually impressed with the sincere, totally believable and natural acting of the cast and how McKenna got it all to look effortless with pacing that never seemed forced or rushed or overly pointed. Everyone makes the dialogue totally real.
Laurie Klatscher gives a fine portrayal of Christine making her innocent and warm. Point Park junior David Anthony Berry’s Gabriel stays constantly appealing and truthful and his darker moments become equally genuine. I did find it hard to understand many words he said, given his convincing Sudanese accent which, nonetheless, did not detract from understanding the character. Point Park faculty member Ben Blazer also contributes solid substance to the role of Michael Dolan, an ex- Catholic Charities staff member involved in aiding Gabriel and Panther.
Steve Shapiro’s sound design stays compelling, at times intensely tribal, but appropriately becoming more American black contemporary to dovetail with looming events within the story.
Ryan and The Rep have much to tell us and they tell us extraordinarily well.
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods continues through Sunday, Oct. 16 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse Studio Theater. 412/ 392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.