The Innocents

Common Wealth Endeavors
Common Ground Theatre
Through March 23

English is the de facto language in at least 89 countries besides the United States and United Kingdom. So it’s striking that the dilemmas, aspirations, ideals and lives of non-Americans and non-Brits aren’t regularly seen on regional or national stages.

The circumstance lays bare the insularity and self-obsession of our culture, qualities that even our highest art frequently fails to break away from. It’s the dark side of the truth found in the rubric that theater holds a mirror up to life: Unless we are exceedingly mindful, the only thing we wind up seeing in it is ourselves.

This insight led local actor and producer Gregor McElvogue to establish Common Wealth Endeavors, which debuted its self-styled “beta season” last weekend at Common Ground Theatre. Its first task is to convince audiences that the English-language works they’ve been missing are every bit as compelling as the ones they’ve seen. Unfortunately, Canadian playwright Daniel Karasik’s drama The Innocents doesn’t entirely make that case.

No offense to Canadawe’ve seen riveting work originating north of the 49th parallel before. Manbites Dog Theater presented Daniel MacIvor’s moody In On It last fall; Stephen Manicotte’s poetic (if sometimes soapy) wartime romance Mary’s Wedding ran last winter at Burning Coal. Before their 2004 take on Brad Fraser’s Poor Super Man, a deeply unsettling Raleigh Ensemble Players production of his Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love made our list for the best shows of the last decade.

But in this 2011 drama, Karasik succumbs too often to the siren’s call of the soapbox in his efforts to make A Statement About His Generation. These tend to come when supporting characters conveniently sum up the positions of protagonists Stanley (Matthew Hager), a brilliant but socially dysfunctional 25-year-old lawyer already at the top of his field, and Aaron (Scott Heath), a slackerly former schoolmate of Stanley who has pleaded guilty to a charge of murder.

“You’re the face of a generation trying to find a way to live meaningfully,” says Laura (Hilary Edwards), a bright young journalist, in one jailhouse interview with Aaron. “Here’s a young man waiting, like millions of other people are waiting, for a purpose that seems worthy of the size and dignity of his spirit.”

Despite the presence of veteran director Rachel Klem, working alongside McElvogue, there were rookie gaffes in blocking and pacing that marred several scenes in this 90-minute one-act. We also question an interpretation that reduces Hager’s Stanley to an autistic-spectrum emotional automaton with the carnivorous gaze of a Norman Bates, as well as Heath’s underdeveloped work, which relies too much on reiterated physical gestures. Nor do the actors improve the play’s too-pat, inverted ending.

There are many stories from other nations that deserve to be heard on local stages. Many of them are stronger than The Innocents. Here’s hoping Common Wealth’s fall production of a new playwright from New Zealand is more successful.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The English speaking, and singing, world.”