Julie Ganey Explores the Difficulty of Being “Good Enough” @ 16th Street Theater

3 stars out of 4

It’s not easy being a saint, as Julie Ganey reminds her audience at the beginning of her new one-woman show, now in its premiere at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater. She then moves on to recounting her own experiences in trying to do good, even understanding that she lacks the rebellious, unyielding principles of the martyrs. Ganey’s 80-minute, aptly-named monologue, Good Enough, begins with the middle-aged Ganey reflecting on her childhood admiration for saints, including St. Philomena, whose story and fate provide a stark contrast to both Ganey’s experience as a relentlessly good girl and that of her daughter, who struggles to find the balance between goodness and self-preservation in the metaphorical realm of girls’ soccer. Ganey is a master storyteller, and she weaves the threads of her story into a compelling examination of goodness, identity, privilege, and community, none of which is as exciting as martyrdom, but which, as it turns out, is still fraught with tension. Trying to do the right thing is not easy, especially if one is not a saint.

Set against a Baroque-looking backdrop reminiscent of artwork from Live of the Saints that announces that she is satis bonus (yes, good enough), Julie Ganey proceeds to prove that she is, and, in the process, reveals how difficult this is. Beginning with a small catalogue of martyrs and their horrible ends, Ganey’s monologue enters the real world of middle-class Chicago dilemmas. She volunteers and teaches at a Rogers Park public school that reflects the diversity and internationalism of the neighborhood, while using her free time to boost her daughter’s potential for winning the magnet school admission stakes. She admires the work of the principal that she works for as he deals with lack of resources that find their way into the schools that people like her daughter leave the neighborhood to attend. Through her own work in education, Ganey is more conscious than many of the inequities that plague the Chicago school system, yet she also wants to give her daughter the best education she can. Ganey’s child-rearing concerns extend to the lessons she teaches her daughter. She is raising a bookish child who cares for the less fortunate and knows how to “use her words.” Ganey bristles at her husband’s suggestion that soccer might be just the thing to toughen up her teenage daughter but finds herself enraged when her nice daughter struggles to respond to the physical play of an opponent. Ganey recounts her struggles to live up to her father’s admonition to “look for what’s good in the other person’s point of view” when confronting what she feels are his illogical political views. Finally, Ganey relates her relationship with Gerald, a homeless man whom she gets to know through the car window as she gives him spare dollars and granola bars, and whose plight becomes more complicated as she understands it better. Ganey understands her privilege and yet continues to engage in the world in ways that provoke wonder in friends who choose to keep it safely at arms-length. Ganey works through the discomfort of having choices when so many around her, including her students and the homeless man whose story becomes more real than others would let it, do not. And ultimately, her efforts to be good enough are not only valiant (if not life-threatening), but also thought-provoking and entertaining. 

Ganey is such a low-key and amiable narrator that it would be easy to imagine the show as a series of coffee-shop conversations. But, as Ganey does with her textured script, director Megan Shuchman and a team of designers and musicians bring the story into the dramatic realm of the theater. As Ganey switches between various roles, ranging from teenage daughter, to Gerald, to her philosophy-professor father, Shuchman directs her to avoid caricature while keeping the roles distinct and the interactions unfussy. Lauren Nigri’s set and Cat Wilson’s lights keep the coffee-shop simplicity in the chairs that provide the only set pieces but add a spiritual component in the saintly backdrop, colored lamps that add a church-like glow to the secular theater, and precisely-focused lighting that steers the audience between locations. Mike Przygoda’s cello compositions, both somber and lyrical, alternately lend weight and levity and provide a musical counterpoint that reinforces the themes and structure of Ganey’s play. As played by cellist Donna Miller, the music becomes part of the conversation and the journey of the play. Miller and Ganey exploit this conversation in interactions that help draw the audience into the performance.

As Julie Ganey demonstrates in her new one-woman show, being good enough is not nearly as exciting as martyrdom, but that doesn’t make it easy. With quiet assurance, Ganey owns up to the self-doubt that can make being good seem like hypocrisy. Much of the audience will probably relate to questions of how much to give, how much sacrifice is necessary, and how much good is truly good enough? While Good Enough raises these questions as they arise in Ganey’s life—in her work as an educator and a parent, and in charitable contributions both personal and institutional—any person who is aware of their privilege will relate to her quandary. Under the sure direction of Megan Shuchman, Ganey’s play is an absorbing examination of what goodness means in a world full of inequity and obstacles, and how to be good when one is just too practical to be a saint. 

Good Enough runs through April 14 at 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street in Berwyn. Performances are Thursdays & Fridays @ 7:30 PM, Saturdays @ 5:00 & 8:00 PM, with special Sunday matinees on March 31 and April 14 @ 3:00 PM. Tickets are $22, reserved $30, with discounts for Berwyn residents, military and low income ($18). Tickets can be purchased by phone (708) 795-6704 or in person at North Berwyn Park District, 1619 Wesley Ave., Berwyn.

Photo by Anthony Aicardi

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.