Staged in the round in the Kalamazoo Civic’s Parish Theatre, “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” attempts to tell the story of a refugee’s escape from a bloody African civil war and his adaptation to the ways of America.
It’s not an easy story to tell on the stage, nor is it an easy one to warm up to for an audience. As the title suggests, its Sudanese subject, Gabriel, is befriended by a white single mother, Christine, in the aisles of a Pittsburgh grocery store.
After Gabriel accepts an invitation for dinner, help with homework, and a room, the script shows the promise of some potential comedic situations built around cultural misunderstanding, parental conflicts with a petulant teenage daughter, temptations with the opposite sex, and Christine’s quest for a successful cause after a recently failed marriage.
One wants to see at least one of these possibilities developed and fleshed out. Instead, playwright Tammy Ryan decides to make this an issue or problem play. As we learn more about the past of Christine’s smiling guest and his difficulties, the questions begin to mount: What are we to do with recently landed refugees? What is the role of one person who wants to help? How will these refugees ever heal? Can we ever really know their pain? Where should our sympathies lie in this nest of issues? And there’s the larger question necessary to propel the action of the play forward: What is at stake for these characters?
Unfortunately, answers to these questions in Ryan’s script were as muddy as the brown waters of Africa’s crocodile-infested Gilo River, crossed by Gabriel while fleeing his war-torn homeland. The play and director Kevin Dodd’s production are at their best when dealing with the domestic situations and conflicts staged squarely in front of us.
Sheena Foster as Christine and Emily Lancaster as Alex deliver a believable and often entertaining mother-daughter relationship. Foster displays a tender side when attending to the needs of those around her. She can also display backbone when standing up to those who question her well-intentioned crusade. Included here is Carmen Dyson-Thomas’s resourceful and fiery director of a refugee assistance center. Dyson-Thomas’s in-your-face physicality helps her turn Christine from a potential foe into an ally and makes the preachy rhetoric of her character at least palatable. Marcus Bechek as Gabriel handles the Sudanese accent effectively and is appealing in upbeat exchanges with Christine.
The play is less effective in tying up its many loose ends and in describing activities occurring offstage or in Africa, preceding the setting of the play in 2004. An example of this is the narration of a late-night, back-alley shooting of one whom Christine holds dear.
Though greatly disturbed by this report, Christine settles for an incomplete explanation of medical attention rendered and whereabouts of the body. The audience is forced to settle for an unsatisfying explanation of a "random" act of violence, instead of one resulting from a character’s decision.
Equally puzzling is the seemingly unmotivated flashback at the end of Act I, delivered by Alonzo Christopher Julian as Gabriel’s Sudanese friend, Panther. At the end of Act I, Panther, danger flashing in eyes, holds a pistol and reveals his days as a boy soldier. Although heavy with dramatic importance, this brief scene is confusing and sends false messages regarding action to come.
Despite the aforementioned shortcomings of the script, Madeline Schnorr’s set design, composed of large piles of brown paper grocery bags and cardboard boxes is a visual standout. In this case the design helps define and reinforce several playing areas while providing a background that evokes both the litter of a refugee camp and the surplus of food enjoyed in America.
Lighting and a subtly crafted sound design by AnnMarie Miller also contribute to a production, which has a lot to offer, despite a storyline that leaves a lot to be desired.