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Lili Francks, J. D. Nicholsen, Amy Rutherford and Layne Coleman put on subtle performances in a production of Goodness where the text takes centre stage.

John Lauener

3.5 out of 4 stars

Goodness

  • Written by Michael Redhill
  • Directed by Ross Manson
  • Starring Gord Rand
  • At the Theatre Centre in Toronto

Polished by years of touring across the country and around the world, Michael Redhill's Goodness is making a return visit to Toronto before heading on a journey to the Festival Art Azimuts in Rwanda. It's a fitting final (for now) destination for a play that fearlessly throws itself at the thorniest questions posed by the violent last century and leaves no audience member unscratched.

Gord Rand plays Michael Redhill himself. "I'm trying to write a play," he tells us at the start. "Though, if you can hear me, it must be finished."

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After his wife leaves him for his best friend, Redhill takes his therapist's suggestion to go on a trip to forget his pain for a while - and hops a plane to Poland clutching a picture of Jewish ancestors who were massacred there. (His therapist, actually, was thinking Vegas.) But that destination is a red herring: During a layover in London, Redhill follows a mysterious stranger's instructions and ends up in the living room of Althea (Lili Francks), whose connection to genocide is stronger than a faded photograph.

Althea comes from an unnamed country that saw one group turn against another and left half a million dead. But the story she wants to tell Redhill - and Redhill, in turn, tells us - is about her time as a prison warden guarding Mathias Todd (Layne Coleman), a man who played a prominent role in inciting the violence that decimated her people .

Years after the genocide, Todd has finally been captured, arrested for a single murder, and is awaiting determination to see if he is fit to stand trial. Therein lies Goodness 's central riddle: Does Todd really have advanced Alzheimer's, as his daughter Julia (Amy Rutherford) believes, or is he just faking mental illness to avoid standing trial? Redhill has expertly structured his tale to keep you guessing to the end.

The self-referential games Redhill plays are sometimes alienating. His determination to depict his dramatic doppelgänger as self-absorbed comes across as false modesty, and, in the hands of a less confoundedly charismatic actor than Rand, might backfire.

But it doesn't, and ultimately, the postmodern tools Redhill employs - imagine Jonathan Safran Foer adapting a play by Wajdi Mouawad - are necessary to make Goodness more than just another voyeuristic tale of something horrible that happened somewhere else.

The play asks why good people do bad things, but it also questions the way we ask that question. It explores the difference between Althea telling her story, and Redhill telling Althea's story. Does it belittle the unimaginable tragedy Althea experienced that Redhill (and the audience, for that matter) relates to it through the prism of the personal pain caused by his divorce?

Redhill - the writer and the character - also interrogates our stubborn belief that goodness and beauty are connected, that telling stories is always a positive impulse, and that there is a clear line between victims and perpetrators. Even the title noun is brought into question: Robert A. Heinlein's observation that "goodness without wisdom invariably accomplishes evil," is here flipped into a startling question: Is genocide the end result of an excess of love?

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Under Ross Manson's skillful, simple direction, Goodness works on all its levels: As a mystery, a personal quest and a philosophical rumination on questions with no answers, Manson steadfastly fights the audience's urges to "other" the story by employing colour-blind casting and accent-free acting, though Brenna MacCrimmon's ambiguous chanting, a blend of international folk traditions, actually encourages distance. As if to further emphasize the connection between the audience and action, the actors begin the play seated with the audience.

Aside from Rand, these are unexceptional performances - that's not meant to be an insult; it serves the text well that Redhill is the centre of this universe, observing and considering. Coleman goes furthest out on a limb with his creepy, Idi Amin-eyed succession of hate-mongers professing to preach peace. Francks's Althea is the most intense - but while she is obviously burrowing deep into her character, she fails to project the pain out to the audience through anything more than volume; tremendous acting, aimed in the wrong

direction.

Goodness runs until Sept. 27.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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