In the early aughts, Sudanese refugees made their way to the U.S. in droves, hoping to find new lives, educations and jobs that might eventually allow them to return home. Many of these refugees were young men who, as children, had seen their lives ripped apart, their villages burned and their families killed. Alone but for each other, the Lost Boys of Sudan made their way on foot through a war-torn country, braving the dangers of the wilderness to reach refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Their stories of survival are remarkable, but their struggles didn’t end there. In the U.S., many Lost Boys found themselves struggling to stay afloat amid a new series of challenges.
In Tammy Ryan’s 2012 play “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods,” Christine, a middle-aged single mother, tries to help one young man find his way. She meets Gabriel in the produce section of Whole Foods on a day when she’s feeling particularly unappreciated by her teenage daughter, Alex. Perhaps this is why, on a whim, she invites him to dinner. When he shows up a week later with his friend and fellow refugee Panther in tow, Christine and Alex both have their misgivings. But Christine ultimately decides to become Gabriel’s mentor, moving him into her home in hopes that she can, from her position of privilege, help him achieve his goals of earning an education and returning to Sudan to start a family of his own.
Christine’s attempts to help Gabriel, though well-intentioned, are sometimes misguided due to cultural misunderstanding. Her motives are questioned at every turn. She questions them herself. The play’s message is that people who really want to help must first check their privilege and examine their own motives, lest they unwittingly do more harm than good.
The 5th Wall Theatre production, now running at the Basement, is entertaining despite feeling somewhat didactic, with a few noteworthy performances. Director Keith Fitzgerald has gotten to the heart of the story with this production, but I thought the show felt a bit unfinished, with more than a few awkward moments and clunky transitions between scenes.
As Christine, leading lady Lian-Marie Holmes carries this show. Her portrayal is tender, relatable and her final monologue brought tears to my eyes. Tarnee Kendell Hudson is fantastic as Segel Mohammad, a caseworker who challenges Christine to do the right thing at every turn. Scenes between these two characters and actresses are some of the best in the show. As Gabriel and Panther, respectively, Daniel Hurt and Ashton Lee shine.
Donna E. Coghill’s dialect coaching is apparent in this show, and she’s done a lovely job. All characters’ accents sound believable and consistent.
T.J. Spensieri’s set design uses multiple levels and clearly defined spaces to represent the Whole Foods produce aisle, Segel’s office, a park bench and Christine’s home. Erin Barclay’s lighting design directs the eye to the appropriate stage area and works to great dramatic effect during the multiple monologues.
Alex Valentin’s costumes help to establish character, and prop master Barry Green has done a great job adding to the realism of this production. There is even a period-appropriate laptop in scenes where Alex and Gabriel work on their homework together.
I liked this play in spite of its flaws. The script is a little half-baked, prioritizing message over dramatic development and the direction sometimes overemphasizes that aspect of the story. But there are a few great performances here, and the story is heartbreakingly real and important.
“Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” from 5th Wall Theatre runs until Nov. 2 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. Tickets cost $32. 5thwalltheatre.org.