This weekend, a student-directed performance of George F. Walker’s “Problem Child” is showing that you don’t need anything but a well-written script and a passion for the performing arts to produce a good play.
The show, an In-The-Works production, is directed by Chelsea French, a first-year graduate student studying theatre. It centers around two parents, RJ and Denise, who are living in a motel while hoping to get their young child out of the foster care system. While they feel passionately about this cause, both have to jump through hoops to achieve their goals, with a social worker, Helen, being their biggest obstacle. Through various surprises and plot points, we are exposed to a world of struggle from the view of their small motel room.
The show is performed in Studio B, an intimate space, perfect for the play’s production style. It opens on RJ, played by Joe Carter, who is watching TV, yelling at a talk show and upset about injustices within the world. While this behavior might seem odd in the real world, beneath it lies the deeper meaning that the show is trying to convey.
“A lot of the characters are very weird and do very strange things, but the play isn’t about their quirks,” said Carter, a senior majoring in theatre. “At its core, it is about the things [and] people we place our value in and what we are willing to sacrifice to keep [and] fight for them.”
The beauty of “Problem Child” lies in what is absent from it. Without song or dance numbers, and with only a few set pieces on stage, the performance of the cast members build a world full of heart and heartache. The show features only four players, with each bringing something different to the stage.
“The cast has been amazing,” French said. “From day one they were really digging into the script and getting to the truth of their characters.”
This sort of character work and research is an important part of the production.
“We have all really worked on making it our own, understanding our pasts,” said Sophie Säther Mahfouf, who plays Helen in the show and is a senior double-majoring in theatre and political science. “Mainly based on little clues in the text as well as imagination and gut, of course.”
While the show contains dark themes, it is not without moments of laughter. These are brought mainly by the character Phillie, who works at the motel and is played by Aaron Penzel.
“I love playing Phillie because he’s sort of the comedic relief character for such a dense show,” said Penzel, a freshman majoring in business administration. “But yet, he is such a deep character that has had a messed-up childhood, just like the other characters in the show. It really gives the audience a point of view from different perspectives.”
This being said, different perspectives is what the show is all about. It’s not just a performance you passively watch. It’s a performance that will make you think about what it means to be right or wrong, and what happens when these rights and wrongs don’t coincide with the law.
“I picked this play because it problematizes the idea of justice,” French said. “I love the way this challenges our thinking about people that are typically shunned by society and told that they deserve what they get.”
The show will take place in Fine Arts Studio B, with performances on April 14, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m., as well as a 2 p.m. show on the April 16.