At the Los Angeles premiere of his play “Stupid Kid” in 2017, someone approached playwright Sharr White to tell him they had a hard time believing the premise of his play, which deals with wrongful incarceration.
“Just spend 10 minutes at your computer and Google ‘unfair incarceration,’ or Google the phrase ‘abused by parole officer’ and see what comes up,” White recalls telling them. “Abuse of power is everywhere.”
In White’s dark comedy, which opens at the Firehouse Theatre on Jan. 23, a 28-year-old named Chick Ford surprises his parents by suddenly returning home after serving 14 years of a life sentence for raping and murdering his teenage girlfriend. Chick confessed to the murder at the time, but new DNA evidence has led to his release, pending a retrial. Coming home to a family who didn’t visit him in prison, his parents don’t exactly welcome him with open arms.
“Chick’s incarceration has destroyed them in this very small community,” says White, whose play “The Other Place” starred Laurie Metcalf and Daniel Stern on Broadway in 2013. “They lost their jobs. Everybody thinks that their son is a murderer, and it’s ruined them socially and financially, and the world that Chick walks into is one of devastation because of his wrongful incarceration. And it’s a comedy.”
White says he began toying with “Stupid Kid” as a bit of escapism while working on bringing his earlier play “The Snow Geese” to Broadway. In creating the work, which was commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, White says he was attempting to write something “more bawdy and visceral” than most of his other plays.
Director Alison Devereaux says that the show is “a wild, wild ride of abuses that unfortunately do occur in our system today.” Referring to high-profile examples like the Central Park Five and the “Making a Murderer” television documentary series, Devereaux says that stories told about wrongful incarceration rarely examine the impact of the punishment on loved ones.
“It’s equally awful for the families left behind,” she says. As Chick’s parents cut off contact with him after his incarceration, Devereaux says his homecoming is especially difficult for his mother Gigi, played by Boomie Pederson. “It’s actually better for her as a character if he did do this crime, because otherwise, how do you reconcile that as a mother.”
Playing Chick, Adam Valentine says his role has him portraying a young man who is immature in some ways as a result of his 14-year incarceration.
“When we see him again at 28 years old, he still has some of those qualities that we associate with an adolescent boy,” Valentine says. “Obviously he missed a lot of the markers of adulthood: Graduating, falling in love, maybe marriage, so we still see a young boy, but he has also had to find a way to navigate through prison for the past 14 years.”
Calling “Stupid Kid” a “charming, detailed, intricate” story, Valentine stresses that it’s a dark comedy.
“It is funny, but I think the reason why it’s funny is because it’s such an uncomfortable show, it terms of the reality of the situation,” Valentine says. “[White] does a magical job of finding the humor.”
All three hope that those who attend the show walk away thinking about the criminal justice system, wrongful incarceration and the very meaning of justice itself.
“Morality is a human trait, so even these human beings that are in positions of power have moral compasses that may not be right,” Valentine says. “We as a society can’t be blindly led by the people in power in the justice system. Even though they have badges on their chests and they say the right things, they may not represent us as citizens as well as we think they are.
“What is justice, and who can we trust in a world that is dominated by [unjust] media and opinions and immoral leaders?”
“Stupid Kid” plays Jan. 23-Feb. 16 at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.