The Heart of the Matter
Longtime First Stage director Rob Goodman returns to direct a new play starring children at Acacia Theatre.
Now that First Stage has become one of the most successful theater companies in America in captivating young audiences and commissioning new works, Rob Goodman, its founder 27 years ago and still emeritus leader, has been honored regularly by the Milwaukee business community for his fund-raising prowess.
Theater professionals and theater audiences herald him for a lot more. As managing director and mentor, he inspired, tutored and nurtured many into far-flung careers as practitioners, producers and collaborators in theater, not to mention inspiring better and more committed audiences. He continues an involvement with First Stage while focusing on being a deacon at his East Side church.
Still, it was news when he announced he would return to directing after five years – and not with First Stage. He would give full production to a workshop he did with writer Cherie Bennett 16 years ago on what has now become Searching for David’s Heart.
This return is with an amateur company of Christian leanings, the Acacia Theatre Company, in a production through March 9 at Concordia College’s Todd Wehr Auditorium in Mequon (yes, named for the same Todd Wehr, the late philanthropist, whose money helped build First Stage’s three-sided home in the Performing Arts Center).
Searching for David’s Heart has some of the elements Goodman brought to First Stage: A concern for technical craft; a belief that children as well as adults can absorb wrenching events onstage; life-affirming conclusions about growing through the most damaging family experiences. The traumas can be grief, rage, guilt about the consequence of harsh words — or even childish fears over what happens in the cold medical harvesting of organs from those you loved.
The story centers on a bright but snotty 12-year-old girl. Darcy blames herself for the death of a beloved older brother just as she blames the world and its indifferent rich people for the tragedies consuming her family. When Darcy sets off to discover and maybe scorn the donor recipient of her brother’s heart, the audience senses what drew director Goodman and author Bennett to try to carry this journey into a full length play.
But David’s Heart even in its current form is more a young people’s novella – youth quest fiction in a familiar genre that stretches in style from Pippin to Sleepless in Seattle. It relies on amusing interchanges between Darcy and Sam, the prestidigitation-loving neighbor boy whose jibes convey a wisdom beyond his years. But it sags with contrivances. The play fails to broaden the side characters and social complications, even relying on the ghost of Harry Houdini hovering over the proceedings like an emcee stolen from Cabaret.
The author hasn’t faced up to the need for some ruthless editing in the second act, which indulges in a clichéd carnival of coincidences while diverting us too far from the real story.
Goodman knows this. But he also knows that professionals would be hard-pressed to make some of this play’s expository sections work while enthusiastic amateurs surrounded by professional staging touches might pass muster.
He also knows there is a saving grace throughout. The two central children – Paul Budnowski as Sam and Claire Zempel as Darcy – carry much of the burden and are the most compelling natural actors on stage when allowed just to interact and quip.
Searching for David’s Heart confirms the Goodman philosophy that the young can confront and conquer troubling social issues that so many parents think are beyond them. A full drama may not be the result, but once again he found the children to prove his point.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blogs here.