Encore Michigan

Detroit Rep’s ‘Countdown to the Happy Day’ strikes deepest of chords

Review June 03, 2017 Tanya Gazdik

DETROIT, Mich.–There are good plays, and then there are great plays. Detroit Repertory Theatre’s rendition of Countdown to the Happy Day is one of the latter.

Although both actors give first-rate performances, Casaundra Freeman is nothing short of brilliant as Gertie, a troubled Army veteran turned baglady. Calvin Biggs Jr. portrays her unlikely sidekick, Cervin, a seventh-grade dropout with troubles of his own.

Despite the title, this is not a happy play. On the contrary, from the moment the curtain rises there is loud, volatile language from two characters with stunted emotional capabilities resulting in difficulties relating to other people. Their combativeness is the norm. They are defensive even in the face of genuine care and concern.

The play opens on Gertie and her shopping cart full of god-only-knows-what that she refers to as her “treasures.” When all of your worldly possessions fit into a shopping cart, it makes sense that would be the case. Cervin tries to persuade her to come back to his home where she will be given a hot meal and a warm place to sleep in exchange for making dinner for his bedridden mother. The offer seems like a good deal, but Gertie resists. She is comfortable in her loneliness, unlike Cervin, who is desperately seeking human connection.

Sandra Love Aldridge, who previously gave a stellar performance at the Detroit Rep in the title role of The Realization of Emily Linder makes her directorial debut. The play is written by a former Shubert Playwriting Fellow Thomas Stephens, who has a remarkably good ear for the urban black experience. The play was a a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s 2012 National Playwrights Conference.

The setting is a city street, an apartment, a church and a city bridge. The spartan set, designed by Harry Wetzel, does a fine job of conveying each place in separate areas of the stage which eliminates the need for set changes. The two-act play runs about 90 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. Production is handled by Leah Smith (stage manager), Thomas Schraeder (lighting design), Mary Copenhagen (costumer design), Burr Huntington (sound design), Cornell Markham (lighting technician) and Xiang Cclc (gallery artist).

The first act allows the audience to get to know the two characters and their complicated backstory. But the second act is worth the wait, as it’s when they truly reveal why they are so scarred and dysfunctional. I challenge anyone to stay dry-eyed when Gertie reveals all of her past traumas. Freeman’s incredible acting ability helps suspend reality for a minute and make the audience feel as if the story is indeed real and profoundly heartbreaking.

As Leah Smith says during the curtain speech, one result of attending plays is a greater capacity to feel empathy. This is certainly the case with Countdown to the Happy Day, whose characters and predicaments become more empathy-inducing until they peak in the play’s final scene.

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Week of 12/11/2017

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