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Playwright and director Judith Thompson poses for a portrait on May 6, 2008. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Playwright and director Judith Thompson poses for a portrait on May 6, 2008. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

The actors in this Judith Thompson play are rare Add to ...

In a rehearsal hall in Toronto’s west end, acclaimed playwright Judith Thompson is urgently calling on her performers to be their best selves: “Mike, you’re squishing James, move over.” “Sarah [who is wildly gyrating], keep your dancing PG!” “You’re all such wonderful actors … hug with your soul!”

I watch carefully, wondering if it’s more difficult to direct RARE, a play opening at the Tarragon Theatre this week in the Toronto Fringe Festival, because all nine actors in it, ranging in age from 22 to 37, as the promotional material puts it, “happen to have Down syndrome.”

Oh, Ms. Thompson says wryly when I ask her the difference between dealing with this cast and so-called regular folks. “There’s about the same amount of drama.”

Actors. They’re complicated. What can you do?

RARE is a creative collaboration using the words of these nine women and men, all amateur or professional actors, to draw us not only into their lives, but into a searing and challenging discussion.

If more than 90 per cent (and, according to some statistics, up to 97 per cent) of all pregnant women who find out, through prenatal testing, that they are carrying fetuses with Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies, what does it feel like to be part of an endangered species? Each year, about 500 babies with Down syndrome are born in Canada. How does one so rare demand inclusion in the wider world?

They are black, white, Chinese, gay, straight and agonizingly honest about what they want.

“I hope to raise a child one day,” Krystal says.

“I want a serious boyfriend,” Nick says.

In a series of monologues written by themselves and crafted by Ms. Thompson, they confess what makes them angry, whom they love and what they would tell prospective parents who find out they are carrying a Down syndrome child.

Watching them passionately argue that they deserve not only the whole human experience (“I hope to have sex one day”) but also the very right to exist sets off an unquiet moment, even in my pro-choice soul.

In an era in which parents of so-called normal children obsess over every little flaw in their prodigies, how do we make room for such exquisite imperfection? And are we a better society if we do?

Krystal Nausbaum, 23, in an open letter to “pregnant ladies” who discover they are carrying a child with Down syndrome, exhorts them to “never give up and always keep on going, because people who have Down syndrome are very talented and would love to be raised by you. Be brave.”

I’ve seen Krystal around my neighbourhood since she was a little girl who loved jewellery and complicated playacting and my daughter babysat her.

Occasionally I’d see her walking her dog with a purposeful stride, not so different from the other teens with the dyed hair and funky clothes, except she pursued acting and ended up in an Emmy-nominated television movie, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, walking the red carpet and being interviewed about it in on morning television.

Now, all she wants to do is work, but work is hard to find. Her mother, author and journalist Madeleine Greey, ended up producing RARE, partly, she admits, “so Krystal could work.”

But even Ms. Greey wasn’t prepared for “how emotional I would feel throughout this whole process. The performance still brings tears to my eyes.”

The actors at times say the famous words of Shakespeare, Yeats and Emily Dickinson, but their own words are the best, filled with rage and yearning.

Like most other twenty- and thirtysomethings, they have dealt with ordinary family challenges – a drug-addicted brother, the death of a mother, dysfunctional families – on top of all the little things in life that make us crazy: people who drive without knowing where they are going, a roommate who “eats all my food.”

The play is funny and it is sad, especially when Andreas tells the story of how his mom “went up to heaven.” It’s inspiring when Mike says working at his two day jobs “makes me feel like a man.”

Ms. Thompson, winner of two Governor-General’s Awards, fierce champion of the mentally or psychologically challenged, has brought her talents to other ensemble pieces that are more activist than theatrical in nature.

The cynic could argue these ensemble pieces are politically correct and emotionally manipulative. In hearing these real-life stories from mentally or physically challenged performers, audiences can feel a bit like they’ve been set up.

Imagine leaving RARE and carping about the range of the actors, or the fact that “it didn’t do it for me.”

That’s all right too. They are there to be judged, and I got the feeling during dress rehearsal that they could take it. James needed help with his lines and Ms. Thompson said firmly that some of the prompting had to stop. “He has to find the way himself.” And he did. Some of the actors with speech impediments had trouble being understood.

But no one on that stage was interested in being a victim. “You think I’m retarded? Look at yourself!” Andreas roars at the audience.

Good advice.

 

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