Goodman Theatre

Most religions don’t confront the question of how to be good in a bad world–when there’s not enough food or work, how do you care for some without neglecting others? Can kindness flourish if hope dies?

It’s a problem that continues to wait for answers–the LA riots taught us that much. This paradox burns at the heart of Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 parable play The Good Person of Setzuan, a script that confirms the persistence of his socialist rage. The warning he first issued in 1929 in The Threepenny Opera–“First comes the belly, then morality!”–still fuels the anger that tears through The Good Person of Setzuan.

A Mother Courage minus the amoral opportunism, Brecht’s embattled heroine is Shen Teh, a kindly Chinese prostitute who “can’t say no to anyone.” Without hesitation she offers shelter to three gods who have wandered the celestial kingdom searching for someone who will stay good in hard times. Taking her for the paragon they seek, they reward her with a pittance. She uses this gift from the gods to set up a tobacco shop where she does good in all directions: “To give,” she emotes. “How seductive that is!”

But the shop is quickly swamped with thieves and parasites made desperate by poverty, and Shen Teh bitterly remarks, “The hand that’s held out to the starving is torn off.” The good Shen Teh forges an alter ego–an imaginary cousin Shui Ta, a ruthless businessman who provides for Shen Teh’s poor dependents but transforms the tobacco shop into a factory and an opium outlet.

When the sentimental Shen Teh falls in love with the suicidal Yang Sun, an unemployed pilot, she thinks her virtue has found its reward. But Yang too turns out to be a wastrel and an ingrate: he jilts her when she won’t give him the money he wants, then decays into an opium addict. Now pregnant, she decides to keep playing Shui Ta to provide for her son, and Shen Teh slowly disappears. The villagers accuse Shui Ta of holding her prisoner, but when Shen Teh returns she can only lament that “good deeds bring ruin” and “pity is painful.”

At the end the weary gods, having found no good person, turn their backs on Shen Teh. Preferring to pontificate like Candide’s Pangloss, they extol the nobility of her suffering, then ascend to the safety of the heavens, leaving a desperate Shen Teh to mutely appeal to us for help.

Perhaps Brecht’s most despairing work, The Good Person of Setzuan offers Shen Teh no safe way out. For Brecht it’s more important to unsettle us than soothe us. Unfortunately, audiences may not want to go a step beyond the play’s ending and say, “Nothing will end Shen Teh’s pointless suffering unless we make sure goodness prospers as evil seldom fails to.” Instead the story can easily confirm its viewers’ cynicism, allowing them to sigh, “Look at these unpoetic, undeserving, ungrateful poor, trapped in a dog-eat-dog world where it’s clearly wiser to be a smart Shui Ta than a miserable Shen Teh! To hell with next year’s charitable deductions–United Way will just waste it on salaries.” But the last thing Brecht would have wanted was his audience identifying with his characters–especially Shui Ta.

Frank Galati’s enterprising staging is drawn from Sheldon Patinkin’s wry translation and from the play’s much more economical 1943 Santa Monica draft. Despite the repetition of Brecht’s message, this version has a colloquial wit and a sardonic undercurrent. The staging sometimes lapses into naturalistic performances that seem counter to Brecht’s alienating effects (especially Bruce Norris’s method-driven Yang Sun), but most of it drives home Brecht’s paradox with something like the power of prophecy.

Happily, the acting comes first, unlike other recent Goodman Theatre offerings. Though Loy Arcenas’s multifaceted scaffolding set and James Ingalls’s sword-sharp lighting are as harsh as the events they expose, Galati refuses to subordinate the story to the scenery. With a hot combo and doo-wop trio, Claudia Schmidt’s rich score is smoothly integrated into the story–its fusion of jazz and folk music invigorates Brecht’s lyrics.

Ignoring her role’s melodramatic possibilities, Cherry Jones keeps Shen Teh and Shui Ta rigidly separated, even in the taut trial scene. You wonder–as Brecht intended–which personality is the real Shen Teh? At her best Jones grounds each in the gritty details of her/his origin. The play’s most searing moment comes when Shen Teh embraces a child who has been rooting in garbage to stop his hunger: she implores the audience, “Hey, out there. Someone’s asking for shelter. A piece of tomorrow is asking for a today!” Dickens couldn’t have said it better.

As Wang, the salt-of-the-earth water seller whose comments make him a common-man chorus, Jim True comes into his own in the trial scene–when Wang registers the people’s fear of being abandoned to the mercies of Shui Ta.

As always, Galati inspires deft work from supporting actors who create mini-plays in their own right, and from an ensemble that could give the Berliner Ensemble some competition. Worth savoring are Kenny Ingram’s spitfire transvestite turn as Shen Teh’s only confidante, John Reeger’s charming take on the nerdy but altruistic barber who should have married Shen Teh, and William J. Norris, Mindy Bell, and Ajay K. Naidu as the pathetically irrelevant gods, ready to dismiss the petty details of daily survival.

Sharp as the show looks, I wish Brecht had forged a stronger link between the facts of poverty and the ugliness it produces. Brecht relies on the power of the play to create anger in an audience, but after 11 years of poor-baiting by the Reagan and Bush plutocrats–and given that 1 percent of the population now owns more than 90 percent owns–can that still work? How many people did Steppenwolf’s The Grapes of Wrath arouse about the plight of today’s homeless? Is Brecht equally in danger of domestication?

Last week my review of Comrades & Lovers included the phrase, inserted by an editor, “sexual preference” to describe Walt Whitman’s sexuality. Since homosexuality isn’t a matter of choice, I would have used sexual “identity” or “orientation.”