Theater: Good Television Is a Real Win
Benjamin Cowhick, Christine Sharpe and Miriam Tobin in Good Television.
I probably shouldn't admit this, but I like reality television -- up to a point, at least. Wife Swap fascinated me with the rich stew of dissonance it routinely created: the prissy perfectionist wife trying to adjust to a home where teenagers spent all day playing video games and eating chips, the pig farmer situated with a clan of meditating vegans, and the inevitable clashes of class, culture and expectation -- not to mention religion and politics -- that ensued. Hoarders was a guilty pleasure for a while. And to this day, I cherish Nanny Deb of Nanny 911, whose stern, kind wisdom surmounted the show's silly trappings and who could calm a tantruming toddler with one touch of her large, gentle hand. But after a while I stopped watching these shows, because the narrative was so rigidly controlled, kept by the producers within small, tight, unimaginative parameters. You never saw the real confusion and messiness, and you always knew how things were going to end. This is precisely where Rod McLachlan's Good Television, which features a show called Rehabilitation based on the actual program Intervention, aims its barbs. See also: Anarchy Rules in Lord of the Flies
The creators of Rehabilitation have clear-cut rules for their episodes: Find a reasonably appealing and photogenic addict whose addiction appears susceptible to successful intervention, follow him or her around for a while, interview the family, and build to the big "reveal" -- the scene where the family tells the protagonist that he or she must go into rehab or be abandoned by them. Like Intervention, this fictional show obtains top-of-the-line care for willing participants, donated by clinics in exchange for airtime. These aims aren't entirely despicable; it makes sense to select people who probably can be helped and give them at least some kind of chance -- and up until now, producer Connie, a therapist and herself a recovered alcoholic, has chosen her subjects with great care. But her boss, Bernice, who's about to defect to Fox, has learned that several extra episodes are required, while the budget -- always low -- remains the same.
And this means that 21-year-old tweaker Clemson McAddy, whose sister Brittany has been pleading for help but whose hard-core, five-year addiction would normally put his case off limits, will be featured. Off goes Connie to a trailer park in Aiken, South Carolina, with novice camerawoman Tara and Ethan, the former producer of a show about "strippers rescuing cats" (no such show actually exists, but those strippers could do wonders for some of the cat collectors on Hoarders). Here things fall apart in all the predictable ways. Clemson has disappeared. Poor Brittany, who loves her brother but simply can't cope with his craziness while she's caring for her two children and dying mother, is at the end of her rope. Their brother Mackson thinks he knows about broadcasting and wants the family to profit from the show. And then the siblings' abusive father shows up, explaining that "Jesus...brought me to sobriety" and insisting that Jesus can do the same for Clemson -- who at this point has returned and is huddling on the sofa in a state of near-catatonic breakdown. And then comes another family revelation. All this would seem melodramatic and clichéd, except that the dialogue is intelligent, particularly the ironic commentary from Bernice, who's given to dry remarks like, "Heroin and oxy addicts, they shoot up, nod off -- it's like watching paint dry." We also know there are many families in this country as splintered and dysfunctional as the McAddys -- even if we haven't been watching reality TV.
The acting in this regional premiere by Ashton and Abster Productions is convincing, with touching performances by Christine Sharpe as Brittany and Lauren Bahlman as Connie, and refreshing draughts of cool irony from Abby Apple Boes's Bernice. Miriam Tobin is a wide-eyed Tara, Sam Gilstrap a genial Ethan, and Steef Sealy's father McAddy -- who's either prevaricating or completely befuddled -- is fun to watch. As Clemson, Ben Cowhick has every requisite twitch and shudder down perfectly.
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Rob McLachlan is an actor, and this is his first play. While the script is sometimes a bit talky, setting out discussion points rather than bringing them to life through dramatic action, it's a promising work: interesting, entertaining, sometimes incisive. And as some of the area's larger institutions churn out safe and coma-inducing theater, it's also highly promising that smaller companies like this one are increasingly featuring productions that are new, fresh and alive.
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