Playwright Kathryn Grant has packed her drama “The Good Counselor” with Issues: single motherhood, racial tensions, poverty, drugs, crime. Most of those topics she skims over, but she gets down in the weeds with motherhood, deconstructing the myths and cliches and exploring the human foibles that can result in neglect or, in the worst cases, infanticide.
The subject may not be cheery, but the piece itself, as realized at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, Va., is riveting.
Under the guidance of artistic director Alex Levy, the company has mounted a searing production, urgently acted and handsomely wrought. Some of Grant’s dramatic constructs could, in lesser hands, seem forced, but through a mighty act of creative will, director and cast bring those constructs into full, human life. They imbue the script, its sharp-elbowed exchanges and its poetic monologues with tremendous heart, although some of the performances could use more complexity.
Manu Kumasi ably fills the central role of public defender Vincent Heffernon with charisma and subtle shadows of doubt. In a small town in Maryland, Vincent has been assigned the case of single mother Evelyn Laverty (Dani Stoller), who is charged with killing her 3-week-old son and leaving him in a field. Her older daughter is now under state protection. Evelyn is a poor woman with little education. Stoller lends the character a twitchy, sullen posture and a volcanic short fuse.
Vincent is African American, which prompts Evelyn, who is white, to lob a couple of charged insults his way. He assures her that he has been dissed by “a better class of white people than you” and explains just how much she needs him right now.
When Vincent has trouble empathizing with his client, his fiercely feminist supervisor, Maia (Alina Collins Maldonado), makes sure he grasps how difficult and exhausting a life Evelyn must have led in her cramped apartment before the tragedy.
Grant’s poetic side emerges in all the scenes that weave around those jailhouse encounters. Time and place shift fluidly in this play, and lighting designer Robbie Hayes makes those shifts clear but artful. His lighting melds with the rough wood planking of Kathryn Kawecki’s purposely skeletal set, which hints dramatically at the jail, at Vincent’s mother’s house and at a railway trestle where Vincent and his brother double-dog-dared each other as kids. Sound designer Rachel Barlaam underlays each locale with memory-jogging atmospherics.
In the opening scene, Vincent addresses the court. He speaks of our impossibly idealized, cliched image of motherhood as “perfection just around the bend and a footstep out of reach. And she taunts you with the notion of the person you might have been had you been blessed with a mother such as she.”
Thoughts of his own upbringing haunt Vincent. His mother, Rita (Deidra LaWan Starnes) — stern, arthritic, devout — seems problematic to him now. Vincent has done well, but his beloved older brother Ray (Bueka Uwemedimo) has struggled with addiction and life’s responsibilities.
As he builds his defense of Evelyn and worries about Ray, Vincent wonders whether his mother, upright and pious though she is, was too tough on Ray when they were kids. Did she just decide that Vincent was the gifted one and put all her energy into his success?
Director Levy and his company create their own success by stepping away from the Issues in Grant’s play and just mining the emotional resonance within them. They come up with gold.
By Kathryn Grant. Directed by Alex Levy. Costume design, Kathryn Kawecki. About two hours, including an intermission. Through June 28 at 1st Stage Theatre, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons Corner, Va. 22102. $28, with discounts for seniors, students, military. www.1ststagetysons.org or 703-854-1856.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.