The Good Counselor is a brilliant play that probes uncomfortably around the chambers of the human heart. It’s a masterfully written and directed treatise on where a woman’s responsibility as a mother ends and her responsibility to herself begins. Packed with uneasy questions, with no easy answers, it follows two seemingly disparate women, struggling to understand how, and why, their families reached a breaking point.
Evelyn Laverty (Dani Stoller) is a rough-around-the-edges racist white woman raising two kids in poverty – five-year-old Christina and three-week old David, who has been found dead in a bean field near the projects where they live.
Vincent Heffernon (Mani Kumasi), a brilliant, young black public defender becomes Evelyn’s counsel upon her incarceration and trial for the murder of her newborn. Neither is impressed with the other. “I get pissed on by a better class of white people than you,” Vincent tells Evelyn in their first conversation. How can this childless black man possibly defend a prejudiced white mother accused of committing infanticide?
Challenging Vincent to see the parallels in his and Evelyn’s lives is his supervisor, Maia (Alina Collins Maldonado), who, as a mother, instinctively understands that the death of David isn’t a simple case of a mother hating her child. The public may have already convicted Evelyn. But it’s also the same public that fosters a golden image of mothers, ignoring the financial and physical sacrifice it takes to raise children and the emotional toll that can take.
And then there is Rita (Deidra Lawan Starnes) —also once a young mother. Widowed early in life and left with four kids—two of them Vincent and Raymond. Vincent was a model child while Raymond (Bueka Uwemedimo) was his mother’s “one true torment.”
Raymond disappears regularly to feed a drug addiction. Vincent has been chasing after his older brother all his life and often revisits the seven days when thirteen-year-old Raymond went missing from home. Seven days when Rita did not go looking for him. Did not try to save him from himself.
Children are an investment and mothers put their chips where they are most likely to get the best return. Is this what happened with David and Raymond?
Dani Stoller as Evelyn projects the type of hard façade that masks fear and pain with delicate precision. Maldonado, who has the littlest stage time, is smart and feisty as the law-tested Maia. Deidra Lawan Starnes’ fills Rita with the type of godliness that makes her denial of giving up on Raymond seem okay. She’s hard to argue with. And hard to chastise. Together, Starnes and Stoller elicit amazing levels of disgust, turning into empathy.
In scenes between the brothers, Kumasi and Uwemedimo interact with a mischievousness that fully envelops the world of adult sibling relationships through which we see them as children. It’s a balance Kumasi and Uwemedimo find with extraordinary skill.
The 1st Stage set is stunning in its bleakness—straight back chairs; an industrial, dingy, dirty train trestle; and a chain link fence flanked by gravel speak to the harshness of poverty. Kathyrn Kawecki’s design is absolute perfection as is Rachel Barlaam’s sound design, which is sparse and stark. In some moments, almost nerve shattering.
David’s death was tragic, and, yes, shocking. But the play left me feeling challenged rather than sad. Challenged to re-evaluate the pedestal on which society has placed the mother-child relationship, elevating it to the stratosphere without considering the weight with which a woman might fall and break.
Both Evelyn and Rita were destined to fail. Near the beginning of the second act Evelyn opens up to Vincent in a courtroom role-play. As he pushes and pushes her, she shouts “I have a right to a little relief…that doesn’t make me a bad mother.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he answers assuredly back. He seems, for just a brief second, taken aback by his own agreement and then relieved. Relieved that he gets it. Evelyn (and even Rita) are not monsters.
Director Alex Levy has crafted a remarkable show from a wise playwright who knows how to make a point without belaboring it. Grant’s script is smart, crisp, and elegant. The Good Counselor wins its case: superb writing, direction, acting. And, 1st Stage’s production is first rate.
The Good Counselor by Kathryn Grant . Directed by Alex Levy . Featuring Manu Kumasi, Bueka Uwemedimo, Deidra Lawan Starnes, Dani Stoller, and Alina Collins Maldonado . Set and Costume Design . Lighting Design: Robbie Hayes . Sound Design: Rachel Barlaam . Props Design: Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa . Dialect Coach: Jane Margulies Kalbfeld . Fight Choreographer: Megan Behm . Technical Director: Aaron Fensterheim . Producion Manager: Anna Bate . Stage Manager: Jessica Short, assisted by Joseph Cahn and Maya Zimmerman . Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.