“What we do matters,” insists well-intentioned Canadian doctor Hannah (Andrea Houssin) in Ginny Collins’ Good Intentions. But what, the provocative plays asks, if she’s wrong?
Collins, a local writer known for her Fringe hits The Good Daughter and Prairie Spirits, makes her professional debut with this play - the first of three new, made-in-Manitoba works to be premiered this season by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. It’s an auspicious debut, although the challenging and thought-provoking play is somewhat hamstrung by an uneven production.
Over an economical 75-minutes, Good Intentions follows Hannah to South Africa, where she works with an NGO to help run a local hospital. Hannah is an idealist who genuinely thinks she can help make the world a better place. But her naivete, and lack of understanding of the culture she’s walking into, soon bring her into conflict with Godfrey (Ray Strachan), the local resident training at the hospital under Hannah. Caught in the middle is Hannah’s husband Peter (Jason Neufeld), an academic who is essentially dragged along with Hannah, and who quickly finds himself isolated in unfamiliar territory.
Though not autobiographical, Collins' play is inspired by her own experiences as a development worker in Africa. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that the script has the ring of truth - however uncomfortable - to it. Collins has difficult questions to ask here about morality and our obligation to ease suffering, and what happens when that butts up against a reality that stymies our efforts.
It's a testament to her talents as a playwright that she can explore these questions as deeply as she does in such a compact play. Her somewhat-abrupt ending leaves more questions with the audience than answers - which may be problematic for some, but which I view as another uncomfortable truth.
Ray Strachan is undoubtedly the standout in the three-person cast - he gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Godfrey, a character who shares Hannah’s passion for doing good in the world, but whose views may not sit well with Western ideals.
Neufeld finds an endearing, geeky charm in Peter, particularly in flashback scenes showing his courtship with Hannah. He and Houssin have a lovely chemistry in these scenes - it’s also where she’s at her best. But in the scenes in South Africa, there’s something that doesn’t quite click in her performance - there should be a frustration in Hannah that she doesn’t entirely convey here. It’s a performance that feels like it doesn’t quite hit the notes it needs to for us to understand and fully sympathize with Hannah - which is problematic, given that she’s our central character.
Collins writes with a smart ear for dialogue, and director Michael Nathanson finds that rhythm nicely in the writing. The verbal back-and-forth has a great energy to it. There’s also plenty of wit to cut the tension of the story, and his production capitalizes on that as well.
But a couple of directorial choices seem to sap the play’s energy somewhat - the first being too-long scene changes, which break the play’s momentum.The other is a curiously static blocking of the play - characters often stand strangely still when speaking to each other, leaving the production feeling oddly flat at points. The idea may be to convey a certain coiled, still tension - but in a play that is vibrant with big ideas, it has the effect of seeming too stilted.
As a play, Good Intentions has... well, good intentions. And while, like many roads paved with such intentions, this production has a few bumps, it nevertheless engages those looking for thoughtful, probing theatre.
We may be left to debate Hannah’s central assertion - that what she does matters. But as a play, Good Intentions certainly does.