Social Studies tells the story of one somewhat unconventional family
It’s hard to believe that Social Studies, a new comedy playing at the Centaur Theatre, is the first play that Tricia Cooper has written. The University of Winnipeg graduate has worked mainly as an actor and a sketch comedy writer in Winnipeg and Toronto. Social Studies is her first full-length play, and she has managed to craft a beautiful, believable piece about Canadian life.
Directed by Paul Van Dyck, Social Studies is about a somewhat unconventional family that has taken in a lost boy from Sudan. The play begins when 27-year old Jackie arrives at her mother’s house just after leaving her cheating husband. She is ready to curl up in the safety of her childhood home when she discovers that her mother, Val, has opened it to a Sudanese boy named Deng, who is now living in Jackie’s bedroom. Jackie is left to sleep on the couch and wallow in her own self-pity while her teenaged sister, Sarah, is keen to have Deng visit. The play is strung together with snapshots of Sarah doing a class presentation about Sudanese lost boys.
Deng, who at first brings perspective and light into the family’s world, soon begins to cause some confusion and uneasiness. The entire show offers a comfortable, homey feel, but there is always an underlying layer of mystery.
Jane Wheeler, who has appeared in many past Centaur productions, portrayed the character of Val, the mother of the two girls. Val is a holistic, spiritually-driven woman who is all about good feelings and deep breathing. Wheeler played the part with an enormous amount of energy while still keeping the character grounded. The exchanges between Val and her daughters seemed completely genuine and true to those of a real family.
Emily Tognet, fresh out of Concordia’s theatre program, played the part of Sarah. Tognet’s portrayal of a Canadian teenager was superb, particularly through her physicality on stage. She brought excellent energy to the show and delivered some great comedic lines.
Montreal native Eleanor Noble played the role of Jackie. This character is a tricky one because Jackie is always looking for attention. She is onstage for much of the show and must constantly be at a high level of energy. Noble did a great job with the role, but there was a slight disconnect between the actor and the character, perhaps because of the dialogue she had to work with. In most of her scenes she gives out many negative thoughts and few positive ones.
Jaa Smith-Johnson, a theatre graduate from Dawson College, portrayed Deng. Somewhere between his big smile and his not yet perfect grasp of English, he got the audience on his side from the start. Smith-Johnson did some good work with the part and played it quite convincingly. At times, he was a bit tense physically, but this worked well to depict his uncertainty in the new home he’d become a part of.
Filled with vibrant characters, a gorgeous set, and masterful technical work, Social Studies ended up being a magnificent piece of theatre.
Social Studies is playing at Centaur Theatre until Nov. 30. For more information, visit centaurtheatre.com/socialstudies.php.