City Lit Theater Company

When we’re very young, of course, we live like animals–simply accepting the world on its own terms. By adolescence, we become so preoccupied with ourselves that we can only see the world as it relates to us. But in between, we pass through a blissful stage in which we gradually become aware of the world and make our first tentative judgments about it.

During this stage we discover that we’re engaged in some sort of game whose rules we don’t fully understand. But we remain impressionable, utterly open to experience–an attitude that begins to evaporate the moment the hormones invade our bloodstream.

That in-between stage is the one Lynda Barry cleverly re-creates in The Good Times Are Killing Me. She acts as a go-between, a medium, putting us in contact with long-dead childhood experiences. Arnold Aprill, who has adapted Barry’s novel for the City Lit Theater, manages to make these vaporous experiences materialize onstage. But he goes a step farther in his direction of the play–we see the glorious eccentricity and goofy humor that shape Barry’s vision of childhood.

Barry is best known as a cartoonist, but “cartoonist” may be a misnomer. “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” carried every week in the Reader and about four dozen other papers, is actually a meditation on childhood, when kids are capable of observing but not yet very good at analyzing and judging. She’ll recall “bad children,” for example, the ones who “would just sock you for no reason and yell swears at anyone, even their own parents.” Or the “Slobbergirl,” so named because “you could make her so mad that her face would get red, big lines would come out on her neck, and drool would occur.”

And in one strip, she told the story of Tom’s mom, who died. But Barry told the story from the perspective of Tom’s best friend, who accompanies Tom to the “graveyard” about a week after the funeral. “When we got back to my house Tom does this weird thing,” the friend says. “My mom’s watching TV and Tom goes over there and sits on her lap like he’s a baby. Mom puts her arms around him like it’s no big deal, and then we all sit there watching some show I can’t even remember.”

Barry has said, “You can tell a really long story in four panels if you’re careful.”

And she is always careful.

The Good Times Are Killing Me is not a collection of comic strips, however, but a novel. It’s a series of brief vignettes, the childhood autobiography of Edna Arkins, a girl growing up with her sister and divorced mother in a declining neighborhood. “I can remember [when] the houses went White, White, White, Japanese, White, White,” Edna says. “Down Crowley was where all the Negro houses started.”

Now the houses go “Chinese, Negro, Negro, White, Japanese, Filipino.” That doesn’t matter much to Edna when she’s younger. In fact, her best friend is Bonna Willis, a black girl who lives down the street. They do everything together. Edna even goes to Bonna’s church, located “in the part of town where Mom would point out every police car she saw and tell us to wave.” That’s where Edna first hears gospel singing. “I couldn’t believe perfect singing like that could come out of a real person,” she says, “a real person who I could go over to and touch with my finger.” Edna even allows Bonna into the Record Player Night Club, which consists of a basement room outfitted with a red light bulb, a record player, and 152 records. Blacks aren’t allowed in the house, but Edna reasons that since the door to the basement comes in from the garage, Bonna can get into the nightclub “without ever coming inside the real part of the house.”

They become best friends–until puberty. The same hormones that incite complex mating rituals also seem to induce an adult capacity for racism. As soon as Edna and Bonna walk through the door of junior high school, “Everyone knew exactly what to do,” Edna observes, “like someone was whispering instructions to our hands and eyes and feet and hair.” What “everyone” knew was that white kids and black kids couldn’t be friends any longer. Edna and Bonna simply stop talking to each other, their mutual animosity climaxing in the ugly incident that ends the play.

Aprill’s adaptation lifts the story almost verbatim from Barry’s novel, with Edna serving as narrator and the other characters participating in brief scenes with her. And as the director, Aprill makes the scenes flow into each other so smoothly that Edna’s words seem to conjure up the events that then take place around her. When Edna describes going to Bonna’s church, for example, Bonna’s mother (Cherene Snow) materializes at her side, swaying in ecstasy to the music, and a gospel singer (Gregory Parker) suddenly appears with a choir.

Aprill has selected an excellent cast and deftly shaped their performances to reflect Barry’s eccentric sense of humor. Maripat Donovan plays Aunt Margaret as a foolish woman whose desire to help blacks merely exposes her racism. Bob Goddard, as Cousin Steve, captures the angry, self-righteous frustration of a nerd. And Jan Pessin gives Edna’s mom the weary depression of a woman defeated by divorce and poverty.

For the leads, Aprill has selected actresses whose physical appearance alone makes them ideal for their roles. As Bonna, baby-faced Glenda Starr Kelley is sassy and aggressive, always ready to fight for her self-respect. But when she’s finally accepted by Edna, Kelley becomes a trusting little girl, full of sweet exuberance.

As Edna, Lorell J. Wyatt is simply the perfect physical equivalent of Barry’s tone of voice in her novel and her strip. Barry’s brilliance lies in presenting childhood perceptions tinged with an adult understanding. Wyatt is very small, so she looks childlike; but she has the face of an adult, and a droll, deadpan delivery that suggests the grown-up perspective she brings to her narrative. Seldom does an actor’s appearance mesh so perfectly with a role.

The set, by David Lee Csicsko and Thomas Myron Bachtell, suggests the hip childishness of Barry’s own drawing style; and musical director Steve Rashid clearly recognizes how crucial music is to this play, which opens with several songs by the cast.

But the real star of the show is Barry, who has provided an uncanny access to childhood experience. Aprill says he considers Barry’s work “a gift allowing me to recover a disowned moment of my past.” And that recovery is at the source of the “good times” this play provides.