“Guilty,” Ellen Wittlinger’s New Play, Spares Nothing

Linda Tardif as Allison and Brandon Lee as Justin in Guilty
Linda Tardif as Allison and Brandon Lee as Justin in Guilty

Silverthorne Theater Company’s Play Reading Series 2022: Ellen Wittlinger

I gotta hand it to the mild-mannered, bespectacled playwright I met tonight at the Lava Center in Greenfield. Ellen Wittlinger holds nothing back when it comes to those topics we all try so hard to avoid.

The cast of Guilty, Ellen Wittlinger's new play, a reading at the LAVA Center in Greenfield.
The cast of Guilty, Ellen Wittlinger’s new play, a reading at the LAVA Center in Greenfield.

In a staged reading of her new play Guilty, we get them all. Class. Weight. White privilege. Money. Guilt. Race.

Even when couples decide to have children, in this play the four actors tackle every single one of these hot-button topics and spare nothing.  It’s refreshing to hear someone say what so many of us think about every day.

The play begins with two couples, old friends from college, and it’s a light dinner party until Alison begins telling the tale of her recently completed jury duty.  A man named Kevin McDonald was on trial in Boston for allegedly throwing a cup of coffee at a cop.

We hear the slightly ditzy Allison (Linda Tardif) recount the jury’s decision, and why at the end of the trial she and the rest of them decided to let McDonald go free, even though did do the cruel deed. “We didn’t want his poor wife and son to suffer if he went to prison,” she explained.

Allison’s husband Justin, (Brandon Lee), attacks his wife for the illogical choice of sparing the guilty man.

The other man in the room, Justin’s old friend Matty, pipes up in agreement with Allison. He’s a Mexican-American who works at the same firm as Justin, but he’s open about the bias that he’s seen that cops have against brown and black people.

Justin will have none of it, and fireworks ensue, despite the attempts by the women to cool the men down.

Matty declares he wants to be called Matteo, not the less dignified Matty and seethes with resentment about how easy it must be to be a rich white guy like Justin, whose parents donated to the college and who Matty secretly helped out of a jam back in the day.

He hits Justin hard, mocking his family’s wealth and privilege that blinds him to the bias of how some bad cops act on the street.  It gets so ugly that even Allison’s famous mushroom sauce and shortribs can’t keep Matty around.  He leaves the party and everyone including his wife Jackie is worried about where he went.

Over the course of two days, we learn that Justin left the same college as Matty without a cent of college loans and that Allison and Justin’s spacious home makes Matty and Jackie’s apartment look sad.

An internal dispute over a big client named Wanamaker is rubbing both men the wrong way.  Justin plays golf with Wanamaker, and despite his pleas, the boss with whom he is also chummy refuses to give Matty the account. It’s the last straw for the angry Mexican-American, he’s had it with trying to repay Justin for getting him the job in the stodgy old-line firm.

Over the course of the 90-minute, eight-scene staged reading, no hot button is left unpushed, from the guilt of privilege to Allison not listening or caring about Jackie, to calling someone fat, and lusting after another man’s wife.

We get it all, and the actors went beyond reading Wittlinger’s words to really acting them out. A sonorous narrator added dimension to set the scenes, the sparse setting of just chairs really worked because the topics came in hot and stayed hot.  The script was riveting and kept the audience engaged throughout the entire series of eight scenes.

I can’t wait to see this play on a real stage, with the physical acting and body language, although much props must go to these five actors who put so much into reading the words on their stands.

Kevin McDonald, the defendant played by Jimmy Murphy, is a well-defined character, a house painter from Boston who got off and then meets Allison and Jackie in the park en route to a dalliance with a woman who is not his wife. See, nobody’s perfect, even the ones who go scot-free.  Justin has the burden of playing the guy nobody likes, while the plot wraps up and everyone gets what they deserve.

A wonderful evening of thoughtful entertainment, despite the masks we all had to don. Worth it.