Griffin Carpenter as Charlie, Valerie Perri as Sherri and James Noel Hoban as Bill in Good Theater’s production of “Admissions.” Photo by Steve Underwood

With the news full of headlines about famous parents accused of breaking laws in trying to get their children into the “right” universities, the first production of the 18th season for Portland’s Good Theater could hardly be timelier.

Though it’s not so much about crossing criminal lines as it is moral ones, Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” in its Maine premiere, takes a fiercely satirical look at middle-class America’s ongoing worries about their children’s future and whether considerations of race, gender, religion and wealth are given the right amount of weight in determining who gets accepted to elite schools.

Sherri Rosen-Mason (Valerie Perri) and husband Bill (James Noel Hoban) are ambitious liberal administrators at Hillcrest, an established New Hampshire prep school. They are also parents of a son applying to college from there.

As admissions director, Sherri seeks to improve the status of Hillcrest by building a student body that matches national statistics for diversity. She even argues with the school’s addled development person Roberta (Amy Roche), in some of the play’s funniest scenes, about how to make sure the school catalog will visually appeal to applicants of color. School head Bill hopes to reach a magic 20 percent in minority attendance.

When Sherrie and Bill’s son Charlie (Griffin Carpenter) is not accepted to Yale while his friend Perry, who has a biracial father, is, questions of unfair advantage explode on the home front. Amid a barrage of F-bombs, some very intense scenes take place around the family dining table. Professional and personal values are severely tested.

Griffin forcefully delivers the young man’s bitter “screed” about society’s (and his parent’s) misguided attempts to compensate for past wrongs. Charlie’s anger spills over into Sherrie’s relationship with Perry’s mother Ginnie (Laura Houck) in some heart-wrenching scenes that test the limits of friendship in a highly competitive world.  Things can get pretty “Darwinian,” Sherrie suggests at one point.

Stances flip as accusations of hypocrisy fly in all directions. Perhaps apropos the recent public scandals, it is the powers of motherhood, for good or ill, that ultimately come to the fore when all else fails.

In the role of Sherri, Perri is extraordinary in embodying the tensions between her character’s professional and personal obligations. She authoritatively scolds her son while affectionately straightening his hair. She offers a clandestine “whew” when she learns Charlie still has an outside chance at Yale.

Hoban’s Bill, in the veteran actor’s ever-imposing voice, berates and belittles the young man’s untested opinions while laying out the options that will be available to him based on his school choices. The ideas may grate but the emotions feel real in this finely acted production.

The set by Steve Underwood establishes the domestic and professional contours within which principles are tested, and director Brian P. Allen has kept it all within the bounds of this play’s moving consideration of some very tough questions.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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