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Review of ISU’s “Good Kids”

Ted Morrissey

Last night I witnessed Illinois State University’s production of Naomi Iizuka’s play Good Kids, and I have many words to describe it, but here’s the one that was foremost in my mind when the play ended: wow. The School of Theatre & Dance’s performance, expertly directed by María Amenábar Farias, is legitimately spellbinding as we examine the complex aftermath of a teen party where a young woman is gang raped by a group of popular football players.

The gut-wrenching subject matter pulls us in from the opening lines, and our level of visceral engagement never wanes during a production that is fast-paced, visually absorbing, horrifying, and yet at times humorous. All live theater with multiple parts requires a group effort to make the production successful, but I have difficulty thinking of another play that requires every actor to be all-in practically every moment, as this one does. The action is constantly shifting its focus between characters, time frames, and locations, frequently offering us the same event from multiple points of view.

Each of the dozen actors, as well as the talented crew, pulls their weight with impressive dexterity, making the highly complex play, with all its moving parts (including changes in lighting, shifts in the set, projected videos and still images, and sound effects), come together seamlessly. Even if the subject matter weren’t so important and the story so riveting, just experiencing the execution of the multifaceted play would be worth attendance in itself. It runs around 85 minutes, with no intermission, nor even a moment’s breath between scenes.

As mentioned, the plot of Good Kids involves a high school party—with all of its teenage drama, fueled by alcohol, social hierarchies, inherent rivalries, and social media amplifications—at the end of which a girl from another town, Chloe (played with jaw-dropping brilliance by T Bixby, whose role requires equal parts vulnerability, naiveté, maturity, and strength), ends up unconscious and assaulted by a group of boys who are local football heroes. Their ringleader is the Hoover High Mustangs’ star quarterback Connor (played with an assurance beyond his years by Sage Brown).

This review would have to be very long to touch upon all the crucial things this play is about, so in lieu of that I’ll quote the playwright, Naomi Iizuka, from an interview she did for American Theatre: “I think the question that the play asks is how can this happen? If we take it as a starting point that college campuses are not filled with sociopathic predators: What is it that creates a situation where this happens?”

Good Kids was a commissioned work for the Big Ten Consortium’s New Play Initiative and opened in 2014.

Farias writes in her Director’s Note, “I hope this play brings awareness to the realities of sexual assault in our modern society. I hope it destroys any misconceptions people might have about what a rapist looks like. And I hope it starts a conversation.”

As noted by K. McDermott in a review for DC Theatre Scene, Good Kids was inspired by a rape case involving students from Steubenville High School in 2012. The assault was captured and broadcast via social media, and in turn received attention in the national news.

The title, as may be obvious by now, refers to the idea that people in the small Ohio town where the incident took place were certain that their good kids couldn’t have been involved in something so outrageously horrifying as a gang rape, and therefore the victim must have been at fault (she was asking for it, she shouldn’t have been drinking, she should’ve been smarter), or, more likely, she was just plain lying about it for attention, a cruel prank designed to derail their fair-haired boys from their lives of one gold-star achievement after another.

One of the chief elements Iizuka’s play examines is discourse, and how language often muddies and distorts the message rather than clarifying and crystalizing it, especially perhaps language as it is used via social media (Twitter and Facebook are frequently referenced in the play). The fast pace of the play mirrors how quickly a message can become confused and how quickly this mangled message can be spread via retweets and shares. And how quickly we form rock-solid opinions based on only a sliver of (probably inaccurate) information.

Because of Covid, the actors are required to wear masks, masks that are meaningfully adorned with a colorful “X”—symbolic perhaps of the silence victims must suffer due to a multitude of fears, and the silence that allowed the assault to take place at all, and the silence that pervades society when it comes to issues of sexual assault. Perhaps the “X” is like a cheese grater, cutting up the actors’ words into mixed-up bits that must be reassembled, probably unsuccessfully, by their listeners. I’m waxing metaphorical here: The young actors’ articulation and projection are perfect in the intimate venue in spite of their required face coverings.

Just as there are too many important issues raised by the play to include here, there are also too many masterful touches of stagecraft to list. But I’ll offer a couple:

The spare set is a realistic though minimalist representation of a house after an out-of-control teen party, but as the plot advances lighting and sound effects increasingly give the stage a nightmarish aspect (kudos not only to Farias but also to Isabel Samuel, Gregory Paul Kontos, and Jacob McGee, directors of lighting, sound, and projection respectively). These nightmarish elements reflect the nightmare that this party becomes for all concerned: Chloe obviously, the victim of the assault; the “good kid” football players who raped her; the one young man, Tanner (nicely rendered by Terrence Mayfield), who might have been able to help Chloe; the host of the party, straight-A student Amber (impressively acted by Carol Kelleher); and really the town as a whole (parents, coaches, teachers—all at various levels of denial) once the national news media descends to exploit the rape case for maximum ratings.

Another subtle but effective touch: During a driving scene (I’ll not say more), the cast holds up typical road signs in the background, signs that say things like “Stop,” “Yield,” and “Do Not Enter”—subliminal commands that the football boys should have heeded, but also ones society at large should follow instead of blaming the victims of sexual assault.

As I said, there isn’t a weak link in the cast or crew to be found, but I want to call attention to some other especially excellent performances. The heaviness of the subject matter is magnified from time to time by well-placed bits of humor, and frequently this vital task is given to the character of Kylie, Chloe’s loquacious cousin who is her ticket, so to speak, to the party where everything goes horribly wrong. Kylie is played by Mia Marks, whose comic timing never slips a stitch during the entire rollercoaster production. The funny bits are perfectly placed and perfectly executed by Marks.

Another fascinating aspect of the play is that it employs a kind of stage manager, the character Deirdre who acts as a narrator and guide through the complicated plot, which as I said shifts between points of view, time frames, and locations. Aneesah Phillips manages this taxing role of stage manager with seeming ease, though it is anything but easy. The character’s function reminds me of the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, and I wonder if this is deliberate on Iizuka’s part: contrasting Wilder’s reassuringly romanticized “every town” of Grover’s Corners with the troublingly realistic Hoover, which is “too many towns” in the U.S.

Finally, I must give special acknowledgment to Teresa Estrada who plays the purple-haired social outcast Skyler. Skyler’s outrage at what has happened and what is happening in the rape’s aftermath provides the play’s moral center. It would be easy to take her outrage a click or two too far and turn her speeches of right versus wrong into self-righteous screeds, but Estrada’s emotional register is finely tuned and therefore pitch perfect. Skyler/Estrada is a relief to the audience, as we want everyone on stage to feel what she is feeling, and to take action as she is taking action (even with the knowledge that the action may be ineffectual).

The Center for the Performing Arts production of Good Kids runs through October 30, and I know to say it is a must-see is cliché, but it really is just that. In fact, it should be required viewing for all young people—and their parents, and any adult who interacts with young people on a regular basis, and let’s add media personalities while we’re at it. Unfortunately, the elements of our society who may need most of all to absorb its message and to discuss it are also the least likely to bother, even proactively sheltering their own “good kids” from such a disturbing and unsettling topic.

Nevertheless I shall choose to join Farias in her optimism and borrow her final words for my own: “Let tonight start that deep shift of attitude in our community.”

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Ted Morrissey‘s most recent novel, The Artist Spoke, won the Maincrest Media Award in Literary Fiction. A lecturer in Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program, his novel excerpts, short stories, poems, critical essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in more than ninety publications.

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