This Is So Surreal: Tennessee Stage Co. Premieres 'The Good Son'

The Good Son is a "world premiere," a rarity among Knoxville productions. Moreover, it's the very first production of its writer's work. For its annual new-play festival, the Tennessee Stage Company—which stages Shakespeare on the Square every summer—chooses one never-seen play to produce for the public. This year, from about 70 submissions, they picked The Good Son. It's a murder mystery written by Knoxville librarian Craig Smith. We're lucky to have a troupe in town that makes it a priority to expose new work.

Directed by Tom Parkhill, it's officially a TSC production, though its venue is Theatre Knoxville Downtown, the home of another company that also supplied a couple of this production's actors.

The program promises "you'll only need the edge" of your seat, and on that promise the play delivers. It's an interesting and unpredictable thriller, often darkly funny, with moments of physical violence and with a few shocks along the way that elicited gasps from the audience.

Tim is a meek, domestic character in middle age with little going on in his life. He believes his mother died in a fiery crash 30 years ago, but in that regard he's about to be surprised. (Something about a drug gang.) Bay, as she's known, becomes central to every conflict.

Tension it offers, but also some rough patches. Its emotional verisimilitude seems repeatedly off-register. Conversations seem peculiarly unspecific; some exchanges seem more allegorical than realistic. Fierce declarations and strong moods evaporate in favor of advancing to the next revelation. Does the script carry a gloss of absurdism—Albee Noir—or does it just need another edit?

"This is so surreal!" Tim gushes at one point, accurately. One character's reaction to finding a close family member freshly shot to death—genuflecting and covering the victim's face just like an old-movie cop would—seems oddly formal. (There's a phone right there—wouldn't you call 911 first? Then, maybe, weep?)

Other details seem a little magical. Would anyone ever assume Mom was dead just because her car blew up? Even huge car explosions leave some sort of charred remains, without which a funeral, say, or a husband's remarriage, would seem premature.

And there's a math problem. We know Tim was 16 when his mother disappeared. We know that was 30 years ago, so he's now in his latter 40s. Therefore his mother, Bay, would be somewhere in the vicinity of 70.

Carolyn Corley, a lithe, energetic actress in a bright red, punkishly bob-style wig, does not seem 70. She could almost pass for half that age, but there's little about her character's urgent ruthlessness, her aggressive physical presence, her minute-to-minute dangerousness—even an armed veteran detective is afraid of her—suggestive of a septuagenarian, even if we acknowledge evil's rejuvenating effects.

Any attempt to age her with makeup would have been problematic, because she has to play younger in a flashback, then return to the present after that. But more to the point, how could someone as manically reckless as Bay have survived all those years?

The acting's good enough to tell the story. Madison Carter, in the title role, doesn't get to do much except stand around and look anguished and confused. Joe Jaynes, a Theatre Knoxville and Oak Ridge Playhouse regular, seems a little over the top reenacting the angry ex-cop-out-for-revenge trope, but maybe it's intentional. I can't tell which urban accent he's going for, but he does deliver one of the play's best lines, in explaining his relentless quest for revenge: "Wife's dead. Golf's for morons. Everybody needs a hobby."

Corley, who's been involved with Wild Thyme Players and Theatre Knoxville, commands the play's most challenging role with frightening ease. Her flashback scene opposite Steve Trigg is sadistic and seductive. Her only failure was in conveying Bay in a certain state, a brief scene I can't explain without giving up a major plot point. It could probably be ameliorated with props.

The ending, which lacks the pat satisfaction of an old-fashioned whodunit, left me wondering if I'd missed some further complexity to the character of Hugo.

And maybe I did miss something; I made the mistake of sitting behind a photographer. Each shot came with its own shutter click and electronic beep. And then he would admire his work on the brightly lit electronic viewfinder. He repeated the process several hundred times. Couldn't he do that during a rehearsal? No theater should host a photography session during a performance for which people are paying.

You'd think all the basic surprise-twist noir stories would be told by now. Though it employs some clichés, The Good Son twists them a little differently to form a new story. At intermission, strangers around me were speculating, even arguing, about motivations, what people were really up to, and what would happen next. I don't witness that much, even at big-budget productions. Intriguing an audience, which may be a playwright's hardest job, is where The Good Son works best.