`Good Times' Isn't Just Fun And Games, It's Provocative

"The Good Times Are Killing Me" by Lynda Barry, directed by Mark Brokaw. Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. 443-2222.

"Do you ever wonder what is music? Who invented it and what for and all that?"

With these wonder-struck queries 12-year-old Edna Arkins welcomes us onto her street, into her family and inside the music spinning in her head.

Thanks to Edna's creator (cartoonist, author and poet laureate of prepubescence, Lynda Barry), and to an excellent Seattle Repertory Theatre production, the visit tickles you while breaking your heart.

Edna is the protagonist and chief narrator of "The Good Times Are Killing Me," Barry's play based on her novella of the same title. And the Seattle Rep's version of the script (which ran successfully Off Broadway last year) constitutes a homecoming of sorts.

Like Barry did, Edna comes of age in the mid-1960s in a working-class Seattle neighborhood where black-white friendships can't outlast the first day of junior high.

"Good Times" looks unblinkingly at that sad fact, and by inference shows how far we still are from true racial harmony. But it generally avoids heavyhandedness by also reminding us how stuck-up older cousins can be, what it's like to get your first record player, and how it feels to go on a camping trip with your least favorite relations - experiences that, judging from the laughter on opening night, transcend race, creed and color.

Arranged, like the novella, as a series of brief, ironic vignettes, the play gets us on friendly terms with insightful young Edna (played by Renee Allison Harper), her wistful little sister Lucy (Maegan Ann Engelhart), and their soon-to-be-estranged parents (Marianne Owen and George Catalano).

Pop music of the '50s and '60s suffuses every scene - Elvis, James Brown, even Julie Andrews trilling "The Sound of Music." In Steve Sandberg's jukebox-like sound design, each character gets his/her own emotional theme song.

For Edna's jovial but errant father, Jerry Vale croons "Volare." For her stressed-out mom, it's the shivery pathos of old Johnny Mathis tunes.

For the Willises, the African-American family next door, James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud" sparks adolescent Bonna (Felicia V. Loud) and her kid brother Elvin (Curtis G. Jackson II), while their parents (Tamu Gray and Ken Parms) hum along with Dinah Washington.

Music is so prevalent that Mark Brokaw's supple direction on Rusty Smith's colorful set often feels like a choral arrangement. But a story gets told, too.

Through close proximity and mutual experience of loss, Edna and Bonna turn into best pals. For a precious while, they even manage to sidestep the racial barriers others have erected for them.

Bonna gamely endures a camping trip with Edna's patronizing Aunt Margaret (Laura Kenny). Edna attends a rousing black church service - and wryly observes, "If you acted like this in our church, the priest would send you straight to Hell."

Peer pressures divide the girls. And though the play ends on a note of musical reunification, we know the Bonnas and Ednas of today would also be hard-pressed to maintain their intimacy.

The play feels sketchy in spots, and ends abruptly. One might chalk that up to experience; this is, after all, Barry's first play.

But it is a tribute to her off-kilter talent that Barry never panders to nostalgia here, nor does she make children sound like mouthpieces for a clever adult.

And it's a treat to hear, among the bittersweet sentiments, many of her hilariously insightful one-liners - most of them delivered by Harper, a charming and guileless young actress who also appeared in the Off Broadway production.

Engelhart and Jackson, both local child performers, also bring sparkle to their roles, while Loud gives Bonna her due in fierceness and warmth.

The adult cast members juggle multiple roles handily. Specially amusing are Peggy Poage as Edna's Valley Girlish cousin, Ellen, and Kenny's expertly loathsome Aunt Margaret.

In response to high ticket demand, Seattle Rep has added six performances and created a special discount for families. That's swell, because this show offers much for young people and their elders to enjoy and ponder.