Tino (Jay Mazyck) is an outlandishly precocious 12-year-old living with his abusive aunt Alneesa (Sarita Covington). Bullied at school, his only friends are vivacious and impressed-with-him classmate Deja (Courtney Thomas) and loud-voiced but caring lunch lady Bernadette (Brenda Pressley).
These four are the primary figures in Surely, Goodness and Mercy, the title for which playwright Chisa Hutchinson borrows from the 23rd psalm. That’s because young Tino spends much of his free time reading the Bible from cover to cover. When Bernadette is hospitalized after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, Tino, who’s reached the psalms, reads them to her. The 23rd psalm is her favorite, as it undoubtedly is for millions around the globe, and his reading it aloud especially endears Tino to her.
The deed is only one aspect of Tino’s goodness. But mercy is another thing entirely. Mercy accorded him isn’t so swift in coming when Tino insists to his teacher (Thomas in voiceover) that during a lesson about the proper use of “is” and “are,” she is grammatically incorrect. Brought before the principal (Cezar Williams in voiceover) for talking back, Tino is suspended for two days and beaten by Alneesa. Always ready to chastise the boy (she’s his late mother’s sister), she later punches him when she learns he’s raising GoFundMe money not for her and her taking care of him financially but for the benefit of the uninsured Bernadette.
In other words, Tino is shunned by other children (who aren’t seen) because he’s smart and not evidently much of an athlete. But despite all else, he’s consistently persevering. He’s such a good 12-year-old that he’s begun going to church—Alneesa mocks him for it—and is benefitting from the sermons shouted by the bible-thumping preacher (Williams in voiceover again).
Which leads to some of positive and negative Surely, Goodness and Mercy elements. Ironically, as Hutchinson shapes her play—and Jessi D. Hill smoothly directs it on Lee Savage’s multi-area set—goodness and mercy may be in too generous supply. Tino is such a gallant boy, shouldering his unfair burdens as he does—and appreciated only by Deja and Bernadette—that the temptation to go along with him and Hutchinson is mighty strong.
Indeed, the temptation is too strong for Hutchinson. She gives in to it, thereby unhelpfully diluting the 85-minute work. It may be that playwrighting is an undertaking where goodness and mercy ought not be so magnanimously dispensed.
How so in this instance? It would be spoiling things to delve into detail. Suffice it to say, Alneesa’s carrying-on about the $7,000 that Tino achieves for Bernadette becomes too much for him to shoulder. He leaves her begrudging care and holes up at school, where—prompted by Deja, exhibiting some precociousness of her own—Bernadette finds him and takes him in.
What’s the upshot of his disappearance? His missing from home for what seems to be several days at least could have made Alneesa out for even more vengeance. But is she? No answer will be given here, except to say that this is one spot where Hutchinson’s goodness and mercy seems dramatically excessive. Perhaps Hutchinson likes Tino so much that she wants the best thing for him. But wouldn’t reality dictate something less pleasant—if only until all is more realistically worked out?
Another hard-to-dismiss Surely, Goodness and Mercy drawback is casting Mazyck as Tino, which, it has to be hastily mentioned, is no problem of the actor’s. He gives a sincere and altogether appealing performance. But he can’t, and doesn’t, pass for 12. As he leaves his bedroom, sits on the living-room couch with Alneesa, eats lunch with Deja, and reads to Bernadette in her hospital room, spectators are likely to think first, that a younger actor is needed and then second, that a younger actor might not be as convincingly precocious as Tino is supposed to be. And then the clearly talented Hutchinson would truly expose herself as pulling the punches that Alneesa doesn’t.
Yes, Surely, Goodness and Mercy is worth seeing now for not only how much, well, good there is in it but also for how much it promises of Hutchinson’s next play. Surely.
Surely Goodness & Mercy opened March 13, 2019, at Theatre Row and runs through April 13. Tickets and information: keencompany.org