BWW Review: LOST BOY FOUND IN WHOLE FOODS at 5th Wall Theatre Lacking in Passion
5th Wall Theatre's season opener has the feel of a typical book-club book: interesting, bringing light to a lesser-known historical moment, good for you but not actually good.
Tammy Ryan's play won the 2012 Primus Prize, and while it addresses a worthy subject, it is less engaging than might be hoped. Gabriel, the title character, is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan-children orphaned or separated from family in the Sudanese civil war of the 1980s. They walked across Africa to refugee camps. Gabriel landed in a camp in Kenya, and after ten years was resettled in Pittsburgh by a Catholic charity.
Irrepressibly friendly and cheerful, he's working in the produce section at Whole Foods and attending community college in 2004 when he meets Christine, the divorced mother of a sullen teenage daughter, Alex. Christine a bad morning, but Gabriel's sunny disposition moves her to invite him to dinner; he shows up a week later with a friend, Panther, who's even surlier than Alex.
Christine goes on to meet with Michael, the white social worker who helped Gabriel and Panther get settled in Pittsburgh, and then with Segel, the Somali social worker who's taken over from Michael. Christine fixes her energy on helping Gabriel to find his mother while Panther, Alex and Gabriel spar in Christine's modest living room.
Under Keith Fitzgerald's direction the play is mildly interesting but unfocused; are we supposed to care about Gabriel's loss, about Christine's relationship with Alex, about Panther and Gabriel's mysterious nighttime roaming? It feels like there may be a more riveting play in here than the one Ryan wrote.
The cast is quite good, with Lian-Marie Holmes playing both confusion and commitment as Christine; Daniel Hurt as an irresistibly charismatic Gabriel; and Kristin Bauer convincing as the rapidly maturing Alex. In smaller roles, Tarneé Kendell Hudson is a flinty ball of energy as Segel and Ashton Lee is both fascinating and menacing as Panther, but Joe Walton's portrayal of Michael seems flat.
Disappointing, too, are the unimpressive sound design by Bea Kelly and the slapdash set by TJ Spensieri, which is nevertheless well lit by Erin Barclay. Alex Valentin's costumes are quite good.
There are plenty of worthy messages here about contemporary issues-white privilege, openness to immigrants, post-traumatic stress-but the play loses power because of its scattershot approach. The topic deserves more passion.
"Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods"
At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad St.
Through: November 2
Tickets: $32 (RVA cardholders $20; students $15)
Info: 5thwalltheatre.org or (804) 359-2003
Photo credit: Tom Topinka