Ode to the down and out

They’re self-proclaimed “scum of the Earth.” She used to turn tricks. He did time and has the tattoos to prove it.

They’re self-proclaimed “scum of the Earth.”

She used to turn tricks.

He did time and has the tattoos to prove it.

And social services took their baby.

It’s another evening in George F. Walker’s seedy Suburban Motel and his screwed up, dysfunctional characters are struggling for justice, in the Guild’s current production of Problem Child.

Meet Denise (Carolyn Westberg) and R. J. (George Maratos), a young, down-and-out couple who’ve come to the city in hopes of getting their baby back.

Holed up in a grungy hotel room, complete with tacky, crooked paintings, a stained carpet, a broken phone, and a scrawny, drunk manger, the pair meet with Helen (Roslyn Woodcock), the social worker assigned to their case.

But during their first meeting, Walker makes it dreadfully clear the system isn’t designed to help those who need it most.

Edgy and defensive, Denise starts off on the wrong foot, and just can’t seem to spit out the moderate, polite answers Helen expects.

“I just want my baby,” she repeats again and again.

R. J. is better at playing the system. He holds down a job, is clean, recently joined the church, and has all the papers to prove it.

“You’re like a rock, or some sort of solid thing,” Denise says at one point.

But R. J. is really an escape artist who lives in the world of spurious TV talk shows, more infuriated by the injustice and humiliation the participants face than by his own life and loss.

Fielding calls from producers, who begin to think of him as a talk-show guru, A. J. trades the very real injustice Denise battles for his TV-land plights.

“If I went on TV and told our story, would your heart go out me to me like it does to them,” says a frustrated Denise.

“Life is crawling all over you.”

Discouraged, hurting and jonesing, Westberg grants Denise just the right amount of anger and insecurity.

The emotions could easily be overplayed and, thankfully, Westberg holds Denise back, offering a subtle glimpse of a very real person who contains her pain until the audience can feel the ache in their own throats.

In a muscle-shirt, sporting a shaved head, Maratos’ A. J. is subdued and genuine, with bursts of tight-lipped anger that underscore his criminal past.

Effectively under the skin of his character, Maratos moves with a nervous, guilty gait, rubbing his bristly head and oozing discomfort during Helen’s questioning.

Woodcock’s social worker starts off stock and stereotypical, but as the production progresses, she brings Helen’s quirky and singular mannerisms to life, forming a funny, tragic and very human portrayal of the social system’s limitations.

Add Jim Kemshead’s drunken hotel manager Phillie to the mix and the play takes on a lighter, more bizarre quality.

Convincingly intoxicated, Kemshead slides hazily around the stage with a quality reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Kramer.

The solid cast, Walker’s brilliant, cutting script, and director Mort Ransen’s humanizing guidance make Problem Child a disturbing, thoughtful, funny and thoroughly enjoyable production that exceeds the confines of traditional community theatre — a must see.