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A DIFFICULT but POWERFUL MESSAGE: UNCW’s ‘Good Kids’ is disturbing, eye opening and timely

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“Good Kids” is not an easy topic, by any stretch of the imagination, but the performances are powerful and its messages greater than first meet the eye.

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UNCW Department of Theatre opens their season with Naomi Iizuka’s “Good Kids,” directed by Anne Berkeley. Loosely based upon a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, from 2012—in which the perpetrators posted their abuse of the unconscious victim on social media—“Good Kids” lays bare the changing world of communication for good and ill. To have the show performed on a college campus the week Betsy DeVos rolled back protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses is unfortunately timely. Perhaps in her period of “taking feedback,” Devos could consider the show’s message: It is a brave new world we live in, one with mores very different from generation to generation.

It’s Friday-night-lights time: a small midwestern town where the high-school football team are treated like gods and can do no wrong. Connor (Reilly Callaghan) is the star (and the one likely to actually go to college and play football) and then—dare he and his family and maybe the whole town hope—possibly even play football professionally? He is, of course, handsome as all get out, with a winning smile and easy attitude of royalty; all he wants will come to him in the way of wine, women and song.

His majordomo, Ty (Josh Browner) and the other players, Tanner (Will Ross) and Landon (Tommy Goodwin), ride his coattails to the best of their ability. They all know they are the elite and live by a different set of rules. Such young power gets demonstrated and flexed with teasing and bullying typical of teenage boys. Goodwin’s Landon, especially, has a sadistic streak seemingly coming from an inability to understand the power he can wield; his power to hurt others, to bully, is because he has a higher position in the social order. It doesn’t seem to occur to him it could ever not be this way. Ross’s Tanner is the weakling, the Fredo of the bunch. He is the quiet kid, just trying to keep up with the crowd he considers himself lucky enough to be part of. In an odd way, he inspires less sympathy than he thinks he deserves.

Among the “hangers-on” are the beautiful young ladies of their high school. Led by Amber (Erin Sullivan), Madison (Amber Wrench) and Brianna (Rachel Smith), they are the “Heathers” of the area and rule with terror. Enter Kylie (Wesleigh Neville), a recent transplant to this nowhere town; she’s the new kid and just wants to be liked. On top of all her problems, she has family in the area, namely a cousin, Chloe (Jana Petrova), who goes to the rival high school and isn’t hitting the same social high notes to which Kylie aspires. Chloe and her friend, Daphne (Sara Lindbach), seem to accept the reality of where they live, and they are probably not going to get out.
The inevitable happens: Amber’s parents go out of town, so Amber has a party at her house. Kylie brings Chloe, who gets drunk and possibly had something slipped in her drink. She leaves with the football players, and the next morning video, pictures and tweets of them sexually assaulting her appear online.

Enter the all-important narrator/tour guide, Deirdre (Kait Distler). A big piece of what “Good Kids” is trying to tackle is the impact of social media and phones with cameras on all aspects of life, but especially as a weapon in thoughtless hands. “Kids these days” becomes a chorus at one point, as the adult world weighs in on events that unfold. Distler’s character provides a much-needed road map to create the spine of the show. Part explores the evolution of the historical “he said/she said” narrative. Now there is live video. Live video of perpetrators laughing. Live video of someone else standing by and watching it happen. The victim has to see themselves the next morning in a different light—and so does everyone else. Or do they?

Where does privilege begin and end? Where does responsibility begin and end? As “the Heathers” point fingers and blame the outsider who asked for it, two unexpected advocates for the victim emerge. One is Skyler (Olivia Ahmadi), the self-described “weird kid” who doesn’t worship football. Ahmadi’s character seems to be the only one to have read Dr. Seuss, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, or even “Aesop’s Fables.” Is not the host of children’s and young-adult literature aimed at communicating the idea to do what is right, even when it is not popular? We try so hard to instill the values in the next generation, yet when they act upon them, we, the adults in their lives, attack them for it.

In the midst of all this storm of excitement and news media, Facebook posts, Twitter, YouTube, the voice consistently missing from the stage and conversation is that of Chloe. She started with few options and has ended the show with fewer. It is a powerful reflection: With all the volume generated nowadays, it can still do wonders for drowning out those we want to disempower.
UNCW has had a good run of choosing genuine ensemble scripts in the last few years. “Good Kids” fits that bill; there is not one male or female lead, but rather a shifting landscape of power. Each performer rises to and exceeds expectations. The mean girls are that weird and sociopathic combination of self interest, insecurity, privilege, and dominance. The football players are spot-on for late adolescent boys who lose all sense of reality in a group-think setting. They have no rubric at all when confronted with reality, as if saying: “If we yell loud enough we will drown everything out and everyone will back down—because that’s how it always worked, right? And we are always right!”

The two groups genuinely made my stomach turn with their dead-on accuracy. But Kylie—desperate to be liked and looking at a bleak future of torture and misery in a new school—was a different story. It was hard not to have sympathy for her. Her genuine bewilderment and fear of the invisible treacherous rocks surrounding her made watching her fail to be the person she wanted to be painful.

The Daphne-Chloe dynamic, however, was heartrending. They are out of their depth in a world where no one cares and everyone sees them as expendable. They visit a world where each of the kids they meet are seen as worthwhile. Why can’t they play equally on the same field of life? There is genuine want and jealousy, and a bit of the voyager in a strange land in each of them. But what of the anomalies of Distler and Ahmadi? How does a character in a wheel chair share in the ebb and flow of power in the drama unfolding onstage, or in life? No shrinking violet, Distler. No. She’s determined to grab the audience’s attention—not their sympathy—and she does so with humor, poise and a sense of righteous anger. Positioned against Ahmadi, who runs, thrusts and lunges about the stage, demanding to be heard, it is a striking visual.

“Good Kids” is not an easy topic, by any stretch of the imagination, but the performances are powerful and its messages greater than first meet the eye.

Good Kids
Sept. 28- Oct. 1, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
UNCW Theatre Mainstage
5270 Randall Dr.
Tickets: $6-$15

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