Context: On opening night (I didn’t make it) PTE set aside a number of tickets for the Immigrant and Refugee Centre of Manitoba (IRCOM). The first crowd to take in Trish Cooper’s “comedy of assumptions in River Heights” not only skewed younger, but more diverse than usual. A friend (who did make it) was sitting near a group of young immigrants during the show. Their enthusiasm when Richie Diggs came onto the stage, their laughter at the racist jokes they recognize, their excitement for their own story being told was electric. Couple that with Social Studies being a main stage production set in Winnipeg written by a local female playwright.
I wanted to like this show so much more than I did, based both on memories of a dynamite staged reading at the Carol Shield’s Festival last year and the reasons mentioned above. But fertile material for both comedy and drama – a privileged white Canadian family adopting a Sudanese lost boy – doesn’t get the full play it deserves.
Genuine laughs, sparked by risky material and grounded deliveries, are outnumbered by jokes that are, well, sitcom-y – both in their content (“I remember watching that on TV” “They had TV back then?”) and performance. There are more than a few “I’m being funny now” moments this script and these actors don’t need.
Heavier material fares better. It ought to.
Richie Diggs’ mostly neutral delivery of the toughest role in the play doesn’t explore the full depth possible for this young man; sometimes that’s unfortunate and sometimes it lets the audience’s imagination do the heavy lifting. On confronting privileged Canadian living, there’s a wonderfully written exchange between spoiled boomerang daughter Jackie (Alix Sobler, who swears from the heart) and neo liberal mother Val (Marina Stephenson Kerr) that builds and then smashes arguments for Western indulgences. And the gentle arc for younger daughter Sarah (Jenna Hill) navigating the shitty waters of young romance is lovely.
Those – along with some genuine laugh-out-loud lines – are the highlights. There are, as I said, a number of low lights, including a first act that doesn’t find a second gear until five minutes before intermission.
Context matters, both in the plays we go to and the people we live with. And I’ve chatted with a wide range of reactions to Social Studies. Go see it. And let me know what you think.
By Trish Cooper
Prairie Theatre Exchange
Through December 8
Directed by Robert Metcalfe; with Richie Diggs, Jenna Hill, Alix Sobler and Marina Stephenson Kerr; set and costume design by Carole Klemm; lighting design by Sean Neville; original music composed by Greg Lowe; projection design by Wayne Buss!; dramaturgy by Rick Chafe; stage managed by Melissa Novecosky; assistant stage managed by Leslie Sidley.
Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.