The new play Garbage Kids by Baltimore-based playwright Jayme Kilburn, now receiving its world premiere at Venus Theatre Company, is a cleverly plotted emotional booby trap. The first act is a series of slightly absurdist episodes that showcase moments from the young lives of the two main characters, Belly (Jay Hardee) and Scuzzy (Deborah Randall). Seemingly random at first, it becomes apparent in Act II how the entire time, Kilburn has been subtly constructing a narrative that ends up being a surprisingly dense and textured mosaic of these characters’ lives. Fresh and compelling, as dismissive of genre boundaries as it is eager to tackle tough issues like child homelessness, Garbage Kids is not to be missed.
At the heart of the play is director (and Venus Theatre Artistic Director) Deborah Randall’s characteristically exciting directorial style. It is an auteur’s distinctive thumbprint that is sometimes abstract and often brutally honest, but that always includes a rock solid social consciousness. In this case, the larger issue explored in the play is child homelessness; a phenomenon, as highlighted in an article in last week’s Washington Post, that has skyrocketed in the District to the point where the number of homeless parents and children exceeds the number of homeless single adults.
Beginning from this stark perspective, Garbage Kids proceeds as a study of the two titular “garbage kids,” Belly and Scuzzy, a pair of unrelated foster children who develop an intense emotional bond at a young age. They are confined together in a home with a particularly egregious foster mother who won’t even let them go outside. They decide to escape and start a new life together on the street. The way in which their relationship and the way their worldview changes over time provides much of the narrative ligament that holds Garbage Kids together.
Although Belly and Scuzzy’s relationship is the central defining feature of Garbage Kids, there are a handful of additional characters, all played by Venus veteran Amy Belschner Rhodes. Her main character is the simply named “Woman”, an adult who has become estranged from her daughter for unclear reasons. Nevertheless, she develops an attachment-cum-obsession with the young Scuzzy that can only be described as zealously maternal. She plies the young runaway with sandwiches and begs her vociferously to come with her in order to fill a yawning emotional chasm that she believes can only be cured by taking care of another child. Scuzzy, being wise far beyond her years, quickly picks up on this yearning dynamic and exploits it to her advantage.
The casual way with which the actors describe features of their lives – such as when Scuzzy exasperatingly tells “Woman” that she can’t simply go up to anyone on the street and ask the time, lest they call the police and send her back to a tortuous foster home – is heartbreaking. But there is also a great deal of pitch black humor that Kilburn works into her script and that Randall takes great delight in pulling out on stage. The scene where Belly (Jay Hardee), busking on the street, twirls about the stage on roller blades and singing a cheesy country western song, comes to mind.
Belly and Scuzzy are great characters, and Deborah Randall and Jay Hardee effectively tease out all of the different wrinkles and crannies that make them so complex. Scuzzy is a tough talking kid with a remarkable depth of maturity that is brought on no doubt by the reality of her situation. Belly is, originally, a far more naive and happy-go-lucky child than Scuzzy. But whereas Scuzzy uses her wrecked childhood to catalyze her towards a better, more stable life, Belly is paralyzed by the combined traumas of his upbringing. In the second act, which clocks in at only twenty five minutes and which takes place in the present, when Belly and Scuzzy are adults, the two characters negotiate their complex relationship towards some sort of resolution, however incomplete. This is the magical catharsis that comes at the end of Garbage Kids, which ties the whole thing into a beautiful bow and delivers a whopping emotional punch that is sweetly sad.
The perennial miracle of Venus Theatre is that contained within its tiny venue, Director Deborah Randall is always able to create the illusion of a large, multi-faceted space. But Garbage Kids is a particularly sublime use of the “Venus Play Shack.” A protean but minimal set serves countless purposes throughout the show and acts as a sort of playground for the actors. Brilliant use of a trap door, alongside a wonderful original sound design by Neil McFadden, ensures that the production elements of Garbage Kids fully enhance the needs of the show.
Garbage Kids is that rare play that manages to condense a whole lifetime’s worth of trauma, emotion, and memory into a tight hour and a half. It’s not exactly a bleak show, despite the seriousness of the issues it confronts. Ultimately, it is a show about the resiliency of children, despite the awful things that adults do to them. Now that is a message I think we can all get behind.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.