Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Here's an apt and timely analogy to baseball's spring training: Watching the motions of an athlete's practice is not everyone's cup of tea, but for the devoted, just observing the mechanics of the craft can be well worth the trip. Similarly, in the Hilberry production of Good, the best parts of the show offer the audience a fine opportunity to watch skilled actors follow through on a complicated premise. For me, that was more than enough for a rewarding experience.

John Halder (Erman Jones) is a German author and professor of literature who is actively recruited during the 1930s to consult with the National Socialist party on their practices and ensure that their actions are humane. Thus, his novel that delicately concludes with the mercy killing of an infirm old woman leads to a commissioned academic paper in which he definitively argues in favor of euthanasia (little does he know to how many populations the Nazis extend this conclusion). Later, a reasoned discussion of cultivating a calming patient experience to the last moments becomes a clear precursor to gas chambers. Having the benefit of neither perspective nor hindsight, Halder progresses through the war with only a loose ambition to be "good," with no idea — or at least no will to contemplate — the devastating consequences of his self-serving actions.

The story is fleshed out with personal relationships: condemning Jewish friend, depressed wife, infatuated student, pitiful mother, loyal SS colleague. Their additions are at times interesting, but just as often seem tangential to the moral questions at the forefront of the script. Moreover, playwright C.P. Taylor's weighty dialogue is frequently exhausting, and ultimately failed to hold my interest in the face of director David J. Magidson's outstanding staging. The plot unfolds via competing stream-of-consciousness scenes in a setting described as Halder's subconscious mind. Expertly guided by Jones, the actors flow from one scene into another and back again, sometimes letting the story initiate the shifts and at other times simply demanding the professor's attention.

Most of the characters linger onstage, figments of the protagonist's brain, which allows for fantastic interactions and subtle character work, a rich tapestry that almost threatens to overshadow the proceedings. The most obvious example is Hitler himself (Jason Cabral) — this play about Nazis so effectively diverts focus from the presence of the iconic monster, that I barely noticed Cabral's great dictator stealthily advance across the stage. Contributing to the success of the numerous tiny moments is a stable of phenomenal characters, chief among them Halder's carping, helpless mother (Samantha L. Rosentrater) and his damaged, needy wife (Loreli Sturm). As major players in Halder's mind, Rosentrater and Sturm have their own agency, and the full characters they create are beautiful in their pathos. As Maurice, the bitter Jew-hating Jew, Dave Toomey's increasing agitation works well with the growing invective of his speech — despite a disclaimer about strong language at the performance I attended, Maurice's cursing was so intensely vitriolic it drove one couple to walk out. Christina Flynn is once again a perfect ingenue, although I wish I could see her cast in a role that's more of a stretch.

Scenic designer Cara Tougas has created a cavernous industrial setting made eerier by Jim Costello's stark, cold lighting. Music and bands factor into the script (sometimes too loudly, it seemed, but that could be because the theme didn't quite work for me), including musical instruments placed onstage and Jason Pratt's lyric sound design that add dimension to an otherwise bleak universe. Costume design by John D. Woodland looked comfortable in a way that doesn't easily accompany period clothing, from suits and swastikas to an oversized robe that's the personification of giving up.

This production of Good is one of the most successful, riveting nonlinear stagings I have ever seen. It's also a hell of a workout for the brain; just try keeping up with the incessant moral questions while taking in the subtle work of an ensemble that will not stop being incredible, even in the background. The play is challenging to follow and difficult to stage, but the director and actors made their part look easy, deserving of major praise.


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