Andrew Wheeler and Corina Akeson in A Good Way Out. Photo by Damon Calderwood.
Andrew Wheeler and Corina Akeson in A Good Way Out. Photo by Damon Calderwood.

If it wasn’t for the fact Cara Norrish’s A Good Way Out is based on real-life events, it would be easy to dismiss as another privileged view into a world most of us have little knowledge. What she gives us though, in this world premiere at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, is a raw exploration of gang life that is at times as surprising as it is brutal.

A Good Way Out tells the story of Joey, a motorcycle mechanic who has become trapped inside a gang. A long falling out with his own family, Joey finds himself rescued from jail one night by Larry, the gang’s leader. Problem is Joey’s debt to Larry and his new “family” will never be paid off. With dreams of opening his own motorcycle repair shop, Joey takes risks that could have deadly consequences.

While Joey’s gang life heats up, things at home aren’t much better. As he and his wife struggle with keeping family services at bay, a meddling sister attempts to sabotage those efforts in the name of God.

While some of Norrish’s story could easily be the makings of a gritty and predictable soap opera, it is grounded in reality by some terrific performances.

Leading the way is an absolutely transformed Andrew Wheeler. Tattoos on his neck and arms, in his Harley vest and bandana, Wheeler is virtually unrecognizable.  Add a low modulated voice and he easily slips inside the persona of the stone cold gang leader, Larry. A tightly wound clock, his hold on the people around him is believable, and sometimes downright frightening.

As Joey, Carl Kennedy is a perfect balance of steadfast resolve and frightened soldier. Pulled by his loyalty to Larry, he wants a better life but doesn’t know how to get it. The title’s hint of what is to come is made even more devastating by the playwright’s ending.

Chad Ellis, as the gang member who starts Joey down the path they will not emerge, gives his character a boyish and carefree attitude. A naivety mixed with the invincibility of youth, you just know things are not going to end well.

Corina Akeson plays Joey’s sister, Lynette, with clarity. Having managed to discover a way out of their lower middle-class upbringing for herself, she has also found God. There is a heartbreaking scene towards the end where Joey comes to her for salvation, with Akeson playing both the human and zealot that is both breathtaking and devastating.

As Joey’s wife Carla, Evelyn Chew arguably has the toughest job of the night. A former stripper and sometimes prostitute, the sexualized nature of Carla’s existence is a tough balance with her new role as mother and nurse.  Chew struggles at times, but does find the emptiness required for the moments of transactional sex.

The playwright also throws a number of curve balls at her audience, with predictability is overshadowed by a few strategically placed surprises. There are also little strokes of brilliance, like her decision to use a single point of reference to designate time and place at the top of the show. That it even ties somewhat into the themes of the play makes it even more refreshing.

Under director Anthony F. Ingram, this cast is diverse. With much discussion recently about how our local stages do not reflect our city’s diversity, it is important to call it out when it does.

A Good Way Out is an unflinching view into gang life. It is buoyed by a great cast and writing that is as at times as surprising as it is real.

As Pacific Theatre’s artistic director, Ron Reed, said at the top of the show, convincing audiences to take a chance on unfamiliar work can be tough. You should take this chance.

A Good Way Out by Cara Norrish. Directed by Anthony F Ingram. A Pacific Theatre production on stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 12th Ave West, Vancouver) until October 15. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.