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Actors Marcus Youssef and Meghan Gardiner.

Matt Reznek/The Cultch

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  • Title: The Boy in the Moon
  • Written by: Emil Sher, based on the book by Ian Brown
  • Director: Chelsea Haberlin
  • Actors: Marcus Youssef, Meghan Gardiner, Synthia Yusuf
  • Company: Neworld Theatre
  • Venue: Livestreamed from The Cultch May 7 at 7:30 pm, May 8 at 2 pm & 7:30 pm, May 9 at 12 pm (all times Pacific)

Excitement and reluctance would be the words I would use, inadequately, to describe how I felt about seeing the spring 2020 Vancouver premiere of the play The Boy in the Moon. The run was cancelled, of course, but the play has returned in a modified form: The Cultch is now streaming the production, with six cameras capturing the action live from the Vancouver theatre.

Emil Sher’s play is based on the book of the same name by Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown. The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for his Disabled Son won awards and hearts, mine included, after it was published in 2009.

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It is a deeply interior book, exquisitely written. “Raising Walker was like raising a question mark,” Brown wrote. “I often wanted to tell someone the story, what the adventure felt and smelled and sounded like, what I noticed when I wasn’t running through darkness.”

How could these inner thoughts be translated for theatre? We have all walked away disappointed from a stage or screen adaptation of a beloved book.

Another layer of ambivalence comes from the fact that the characters are based on people I know: Brown and his wife, Johanna Schneller. I know them a little bit as colleagues, but mostly I have come to know them through their words, as a reader of their work.

And as a reader of Brown’s raw, honest and moving book, I had fallen in love with this unknowable boy, Walker, their son. Born with an exceedingly rare genetic disorder, Cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC) syndrome, Walker cannot talk or eat solid food. He is severely developmentally delayed, with debilitating physical issues.

What his parents have gone through raising him – along with his neurotypical sister, Hayley – almost defies belief. For years they tended to his every need, around the clock.

And this is where playwright Sher, like Brown in his book, begins the story: describing the exhaustive, exhausting middle-of-the-night routine to get Walker his bottle. Ian detaches the boy’s feeding system, lifts him from his crib – he weighs 45 pounds – changes his diaper, carries him downstairs to prepare the bottle, then back upstairs to bed, where he, on good nights, will fall asleep.

Marcus Youssef, as Ian, explains this nightmarish nighttime procedure straight to the camera. At first, we can hear him, but can’t see him. Ian is in the dark in every way: how can he adequately care for his son? And what does Walker know, feel, think, want? Is he in the dark too, permanently?

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Slowly the lights come up and there is Youssef, in plaid, with a halting delivery. He plays Ian as articulate but shaky, stammering his way through his dialogue, as if to echo the experience of navigating this uncharted parenting storm. Mostly it works. Sometimes it is a little much, a distraction.

Meghan Gardiner plays Johanna as the rock – calm, mostly; quietly exhausted. Steely resolve fuelled by fierce love. Funny, very. They both are.

Synthia Yusuf as Hayley dances (sometimes literally) around the tragedy – the involved bystander, wise beyond her years.

The conceit Sher employs to take the book from page to stage is that Ian and Johanna are being interviewed – the journalists answering, rather than asking, questions for a change. The interview evolves into scenes from their lives.

And it is in these interactions when the story really comes alive: Ian and Johanna at the kitchen table, discussing, bickering, laughing. Resenting and supporting each other at once.

In the book, we learn about Johanna through Ian’s lens, but in the play we hear from her directly.

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The script has been updated to include new revelations about Jean Vanier, the late founder of L’Arche, who figures prominently in Brown’s book.

The streamed experience allows for extreme intimacy. We’re not in the theatre, but we have a front row seat to even subtle facial expressions, to the sweat on Youssef’s forehead.

This didn’t always work on opening night. In one scene, for instance, Ian lists a series of manoeuvres for handling Walker, including some leg action. As he demonstrated, his legs were out of frame.

Still, I loved the energy of watching a live performance – minor snafus or not. Anything can happen. Which feels like the right way, the only way, to tell this story.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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