At a time when Canadians are more partisan and polarized than ever, along comes Michael Healey just when we needed him to resurrect the unfashionable notion that we should try to understand those we politically disagree with – and that the prerogative of a playwright is to get inside and humanize.
Given the controversy surrounding his new play Proud – Healey’s former theatrical home Tarragon Theatre rejected it, ostensibly out of concerns it might bring a libel suit from the Prime Minister – you might reasonably expect it to involve Stephen Harper stoning a baby.
But no, this comedy – funny and foul-mouthed, yet surprisingly sweet – presents the leader of Her Majesty’s Government as an economics nerd whose primary passion is to make Canada a more self-reliant and thus happier country. Yes, this Harper is also a sexually awkward and strategically ruthless control freak, but in Healey’s writing, he’s a sympathetic one.
Proud begins shortly after the Canadian election of 2011 – with the twist that the Conservative party wins a bigger majority than they actually did. In this alternate history, Quebec was swept up in a blue wave rather than an orange one.
As the plays starts, Harper (Healey, taking on the role himself) and his chief of staff, Cary (Tom Barnett), an even more Machiavellian political operative who’s like a juiced-up Guy Giorno, are puzzling over who should sit where on a House of Commons floor-plan saturated in royal blue.
In walks a potential crimp to their carefully executed plans – one of the new and unexpected Quebec MPs, sexy single mother and former St-Hubert manager Jisbella Lyth (Maev Beaty). The backbencher has struck a committee to find a condom and wonders if either of the two gentlemen have one she can borrow.
Barely resisting his initial impulse to throw her under the bus, Harper decides, instead, to take the political neophyte under his wing – and use the loose cannon for his own purposes. The Prime Minister’s first mission for Lyth is for her to introduce a private member’s bill relating to abortion – one that he will eventually instruct his caucus to vote down. The idea, however, is that while the press are busy chasing this shiny distraction , they'll ignore Harper’s cuts to the Privy Council Office.
Naturally, Lyth eventually turns out to be more calculating than she initially appeared. In the meantime, however, Proud unfolds like a parliamentary Pygmalion as Harper instructs his pupil in the differences between strategies and tactics, beliefs and feelings.
In the grand, contrarian tradition of Bernard Shaw, Healey has taken a character you expect to be laughing at and given him the best lines and most convincing justifications. His Harper gets a couple of killer speeches, provocative and hilarious – notably one where he lists all the things that secretly he doesn’t care about and that he has only taken a position on to build his coalition. If you’re a supporter of the Conservatives, you may not recognize or like this version on stage. If you’re one of those ABC (anybody but Conservative) voters, you may find yourself strangely swung by Healey's likeable hangdog portrait of him.
On one hand then, Proud is certainly a Shavian success and should be a hit with all political junkies who only wish Rick Mercer’s rants contained more sophomoric sex jokes (though Healey doesn't always seem to trust he can hold his audience’s interest without them).
But while the ideas bounce entertainingly, the play is ultimately missing a dramatic conflict to really power it forward. The playwright finds tension in the mismatch between his portrayal of Harper and his audience’s expectations, but there’s otherwise an awful lot of agreement on stage. His Harper is an electric creation, but the other two we come to know in the PMO never quite seem more than sounding boards and set-ups.
The only character to contradict the overall ethos of the three Conservatives is a young man named Jake (Jeff Lillico), who appears in a series of short scenes that jump ahead to 2029 – a horrifying dystopian future where, not only is Harper still Prime Minister, but Evan Solomon is still a prominent presence on the CBC. I see why Healey felt the need to include Jake's voice, but his final, mildly confusing speech is built up to such an extent that it can only disappoint.
Miles Potter’s production is otherwise coherent and lively, though a drab, realistic set backed by black curtains and low-energy music between the scenes sometimes acts as a damper on the high spirits. Ultimately, none of this should stop the politically rabid from catching a very funny show that’s already brought NDP MP Craig Scott (Toronto-Danforth) and Conservative MP Ryan Leef (Yukon) into its unlikely audience coalition.