Are parents fully responsible for their child’s actions? Or, more specifically, is a father guilty when he fails to prevent his son from shooting his classmates? These are the knotty questions raised in Jane Martin’s new play, Good Boys, now playing at the Guthrie Lab.
But an even broader question frames this play: What was the troubled relationship between this murderous boy and the students he guns down? Can the father of the killer ask for forgiveness and, by doing so, begin to heal two families attached to this tragedy? Thomas Thurman (Glynn Turman), a preacher and father of a school shooting victim, travels to Florida, seeking the answers to these questions, searching out James Erskine (Stephen Yoakum), the killer’s father. Erskine would rather quiet his questions with alcohol.
These are tricky ñ and valid ñ questions; they aren’t new, and aren’t fully explored in this play. Playwright Jane Martin is a mysterious figure ñ her name is a nom de plume for an unknown author. Presumably, Martin would feel at ease writing an edgier, more challenging piece. After all, behind the mask of anonymity, an author can write anything. Instead, the play merely hints at really serious issues, relying on staged gunshots to startle us and deceive us into thinking this is a more powerful play than it really is.
As an example, Good Boys features a scene in which Thurman questions Erskine about a detail from his relationship with his son: He trained the boy to shoot a handgun. James reacts defensively, angrily refuting the implication that teaching a kid how to shoot firearms automatically puts them in the category of “potential killer” and the parent as “irresponsible.” However, this issue ñ which looks to become a fascinating debate ñ is quickly dropped.
Flashback sequences interrupt the fathers’ heated confrontation, which are set in a public park. These flashbacks take us through the days leading up to the school shooting, following both Erskine’s son (an chatty, tormented Casey Greig) and Thurman’s (Marlon Morrison, performing with a football player’s cocksure swagger) as they move toward a lethal confrontation with each other.With each flashback, the fathers, who sometimes participate in the scenes and sometimes look on in horror, become more entrenched in their anguish and guilt. The past further creeps into the present, reintroducing the once fresh terror, and raising the specter of racism (Erskine is white, Thurman is black).
Unfortunately, the play simply coasts above the problems raised. It suggests a father’s inability to recognize and adequately respond to his son’s emotional issues. However, the play fails to address the psychological torment put upon teenagers in the school system. At one point, Thomas points out that no shootings had occurred in Christian schools. This may be true, and is an interesting factoid, but any further discussion ends there. The play never fully explores Erskin’s son, or the boy’s desperate need for advocacy from his parents. He begs his father in one flashback, demanding that the man “use your power on my behalf.” But the play barely focuses on the parents’ responsibility to provide emotional support.
At least the acting is strong in this production. Notably, accomplished character actor Glynn Turman convincingly portrays a man burdened with a grief that has caused him to lose faith. Despite having worked as a preacher, Turman’s character not stepped in a church since his son’s murder, and the actor describes this detail in frank, anguished detail. He plays a deeply wounded man, and plays him well, his naked pain and his struggle for understanding leaving us wishing for a more complex play, one that does more than briefly touch on the issues that it raises.
Good Boys plays through Sept 22 at the Guthrie Lab, (612) 377-2224.