A socially-conscious comedy about refugee issues and the aftermath of genocide? How very Canadian.
But in the hands of Winnipeg playwright Trish Cooper (a Fringe veteran making her professional playwriting debut here), this unlikely premise yields rich comedic results - and a remarkably thoughtful piece of theatre - in Social Studies, seeing its world premiere at Prairie Theatre Exchange.
After her marriage suddenly dissolves, privileged Winnipeg thirty-something Jackie (Alix Sobler) moves back in with her social activist, if slightly flaky mother Val (Marina Stephenson Kerr) and younger sister Sarah (Jenna Hill).
The only trouble is that Val’s attention - and Jackie’s room - have both been claimed by Deng (Richie Diggs), a Sudanese “lost boy” who the Pollyannaish Val has taken in. What follows is an insightful, and often very funny, clash of culture, social values, and questions about the responsibility of the advantaged to care for the disadvantaged.
What surprises most, besides the fact that Cooper can draw humour from such dire circumstances, is how deftly she makes each character simultaneously sympathetic and flawed. Jackie is self-centred, but not always unjustifiably so; Val has a big heart, but is also naive; high school student Sarah is by turns a paragon of maturity and immaturity; and Deng is charming and polite, but also homophobic and sexist by Western standards.
And so there are some deep questions here about how we help those in our society who most desperately need it, while also caring for ourselves, and how refugees who have lived through unspeakable horror fit into Canadian society, or don’t.
At the same time, it’s also a rollicking comedy. Cooper - perhaps best known as a member of the lamentably disbanded comedy troupe Royal Lichtenstein Theatre Company - brings a comedian’s ear to sharp, witty dialogue, often with a hilariously profane bent, and to finding the endearingly funny quirks in her characters.
It’s not a flawless play - while she starts it with a bang, cutting directly to the heart of the play’s issues, Social Studies does lose some steam by its end. Bringing the 150-minute (with intermission) running time down with a trim to the slower moving second act would help the play sustain the energy it builds with its beginning. But much of that is forgiven by a powerful conclusion.
Robert Metcalfe’s production does the outstanding new script full justice. Veterans Sobler and Stephenson Kerr turn in superb performances, but so do Hill and Diggs, both making their professional stage debuts here. All four display sharp comic timing, and versatility in handling the play’s deeper moments.
In the end, you could take the play in just for the laughs, and there are more than enough to sustain it as a comedy. But Social Studies also has important points to make about the refugee experience in our country, and puts a distinctly human face on the tragic stories we’ve all heard in the news, but perhaps never fully understood.
How very Canadian indeed.
Social Studies runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Dec. 8.