If you want to understand the white working class, you could do worse than turn to George F. Walker.
Since the 1980s, the Toronto playwright has been drawing inspiration from the demographic he grew up in – you might call it the white poor, or white working poor, depending on your politics; the people now the subject of increased media scrutiny (and perhaps scapegoating) following the rise of Donald Trump.
In The Damage Done, Walker returns to a pair of characters he first created in 1992 named Bobby and Tina. These two Toronto east-enders first appeared aged 19, struggling with an unexpected pregnancy, in his much-produced young-adult play, Tough! In 2013, Walker unexpectedly returned to the two characters aged 21, dealing with a second pregnancy in a more problematic two-hander called Moss Park – named after the Toronto neighbourhood that became one of the poorest in the city after the deindustrialization of the 1970s.
Now, in this latest work getting its world premiere from director Ken Gass’s company Canadian Rep at a small theatre located in the real-life Moss Park, Bobby and Tina are pushing 40.
Fifteen years after finally calling it quits as a couple, they meet back at the park where the first two plays were set.
In the intervening years, Tina (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) has moved up and out of the old neighbourhood with their two children. With the help of long-term boyfriends, she put herself through school for social work – and, while the relationships didn’t work out, she now has a career and a house in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, Bobby (Wes Berger), who has only been tenuously involved in the lives of his daughters, still hasn’t settled on what to do with his life. He’s just learned how to operate a forklift, but is faking an ankle injury to get workers’ compensation – and, as Tina puts it, still dreams of the things he could be doing, instead of what he should be doing. (Toying with writing a play, the loveable lunkhead seems more of a stand-in for Walker than ever.)
Critic Jerry Wasserman has summarized the thrust of Walker’s major East End plays of the 1980s and early 1990s as being about “the attempt, mostly by women, to re-educate the corrupted and generally bewildered men responsible for the intolerable status quo.”
Tina, who always tries to project the image that she’s tough and together, starts off thinking she’s in one of those plays. As Bobby puts it, “I screw up; you still think it’s your job to straighten me out.” This time around, however, it’s really Tina who needs straightening out. She has to go away and wants Bobby to move into her house and take care of their teenagers .
The depths of her despair are only gradually revealed – though the Neil Young song the title comes from is a clue. Can Bobby finally be there for her?
All three Bobby and Tina plays are unusual in Walker’s sprawling canon in that they follow the classical unities – that’s to say, they tell a single story in a single place in real time.
This actually leads them to be less naturalistic than some of Walker’s other family plays, full of contrivance and exposition masked as argument. Both Berger and Murphy-Dyson do a fine enough job of finding their footing in this compressed atmosphere – but Walker’s repetitive structure of rehashed past, then revelation, makes it difficult for an audience to stay with them in the moment.
Walker’s play asks whether, to revisit the title of one of his earlier plays, better living is really possible when you grow up the way Bobby and Tina did – even if you get out of poverty and move to a nice suburb, can the mind ever find security?
In Gass’s production, which he designed himself, the stage is covered in dead leaves – and Joey Condello’s lighting design gives the impression of clouds passing. Maybe a production that more aggressively explored the artificiality of the writing, rather than trying to make it seem like a walk in the park, might be more satisfying. Because it’s clear this east-end space in which Bobby and Tina have been meeting for 20 years is a mental one as much as a physical one – and where Bobby has learned to exist comfortably within it, Tina still feels uneasy over leaving it.
A premiere of a Walker play is less of an event than it once was: At age 69, he’s more prolific than ever, averaging two plays a year since 2010. At this point, I’d be more interested in younger directors revisiting his older, larger-scale East End plays such asLove and Anger (1989) and Escape from Happiness (1991) to see what his white, working-class characters might have to say now to a world in the throes of Trumpism and a city in the wake of Fordism.
The Damage Done (canadianrep.ca) continues to Dec. 11.