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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods

I ran, stepping over burning bodies to my mother's house
When I got to the place where they should be
There was nothing but ashes
All of my brothers and sisters were gone
The cooking pot was empty
The eyes of my father were empty
My father's spirit told me to fight so I joined the army They gave me a gun and said the army is your mother now
— Panther

Lost Bloys Found in Whole Foods
Warner Miller as Gabriel and Kim Zimmer as Christine
( Photo by Roy Groething)
Socio-political theater, that is the well-meaning guilt-inducing message play, doesn't get more conspicuously embraced than it does in Tammy Ryan's Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods. The dramatic quotient, however, is as displaced in this world premiere co-production between Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey as is the central character.

Life takes an unexpected detour for Christine (Kim Zimmer) while she shops at her local Whole Foods store in a suburb of Pittsburgh. A middle-aged divorcee of means, Christine befriends Gabriel (Warner Miller,) a young and ingratiating employee with whom she engages in friendly conversation. At home, Christine is having a trying and testy relationship with her chronically unpleasant 16 year-old daughter Alex (Alexandra Rivera.) The ostensibly needy Christine returns in short order to Whole Foods where she is particularly warm, responsive and motherly toward Gabriel and his back story: one of the many displaced "Lost Boys" of Sudan who have found refuge and work in the United States.

  Much to Alex's displeasure, Christine invites Gabriel to live in their home and agrees to be his mentor. Through conversations with Gabriel as well as with Michael (David Farrington,) a free-lance Catholic activist/social worker formerly employed by Catholic Charities, Christine becomes aware of the plight of the "Lost Boys. " During the course of the play that has been ably directed by John Pietrowski, we begin to understand the extent of the tragedy that befell approximately 17,000 boys. It was during Sudan's second Civil War in the early 1980s that they fled Southern Sudan when their homes and their villages were destroyed and the women and girls were either raped or killed, or sold into slavery. The play is set in 2003.

  Why are we not surprised by the sudden adjustment made by Christine and Alex or by Alex's change of attitude when she begins to tutor the grateful Gabriel in his English studies while he attends evening classes at the local community college? Surprises, a necessary part of almost any play, are in short supply. He, in turn, helps Christine, who attends a Catholic school for girls, with her math. Gabriel is not only determined to be a success, "I want to be the black Donald Trump, " but also hopeful that he will someday be reunited with his mother who may be living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.

  Their friendship does not include Gabriel's best friend and another "lost boy" (a name that they don't like to be called), the considerably older, fierce-looking and more rebellious Panther (Jamil Mangan,) whose wife and child may also be among the refugees. Christine's attempt to do something worthwhile brings her into contact with Somali-born Segel Mohammed (Trish McCall,) the director and founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Refugee Relief. Segel, a pragmatic activist, wants an equal amount of activism from Christine in return for helping to find Gabriel's mother.

  The play relies heavily on the unbreakable bond between Gabriel and the otherwise distrustful and unsettled Panther, who works at odd jobs, borrows and spends lots of money and also gets a lot of phone calls. The play's major conflict, however, seems to be how far is Christine willing to go beyond being a mere "do-gooder." One wishes that there were more dramatically contentious scenes like the one in which Panther pulls out a gun in front of Gabriel and Alex and goes into a menacing rant. If the play's resolution is tied to a melodramatic twist, the main portion is either sluggish with exposition or padded with noble sentiments expressed by characters who are, as likely as they are not, able to effect any change in the world.

  Miller is charismatic and splendid as the admirably motivated Gabriel. Mangan holds on to the dynamic tension that makes Panther the play's most interesting character. McCall gives a flinty no-nonsense performance as the activist Segel. Zimmer, who is probably best know for her years as Reva Sayne on TV's Guiding Light, is convincing as the purposeful Christine. Rivera, who, although looking a bit uncomfortable and silly in costume designer Sarah Cubbage's idea of a Catholic High School uniform does what she can to be convincing in the thankless role of the daughter. Farrington is personable and effective as the accommodating social worker.

Except for a lovely fadeout (courtesy of lighting designer Nadine Charlesen), the functional and simple set design by Joseph Gorley serves the play well enough. More impressive is the background sound design by Jeff Knapp that includes African songs, drumming and rain. But perhaps what we needed in this play was less sound and more fury.

Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods
  By Tammy Ryan
  Directed by John Pietrowski 
  Cast: Warner Miller (Gabriel), Kim Zimmer (Christine), Alexandra Rivera (Alex), Jamil Mangan (Panther), David Farrington) Trish McCall (Segel)
Scenic Designer: Joseph Gourley
  Costume Designer: Sarah Cubbage
  Lighting Designer: Nadine Charlsen
  Sound Designer: Jeff Knapp
  Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
  Premiere Stages located on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ.
  (908) 737 - 7469
  Tickets: $25 & $20 seniors and $15 students
  Performances: Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 and 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM.
  Preview on 09/02/10
  Opened: 09/03/10
  Closes: 09/19/10
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/03/10

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