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review

Rosa Laborde’s True explores how children deal with a parent who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

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  • Title: True
  • Written and directed by: Rosa Laborde
  • Actors: Layne Coleman, Maev Beaty, Beau Dixon, Ingrid Rae Doucet and Shannon Taylor
  • Company: Project Undertow
  • Venue: CAMH Auditorium
  • City: Toronto
  • Runs: To Nov. 5

In 2014, Rosa Laborde’s True made a splash as a one-act site-specific play at the Toronto Fringe Festival and quickly enjoyed more success with a short follow-up run at the same Queen Street West café that was a key part of the production’s undeniable charm. Those were good times.

Or were they?

Laborde’s True is a sharp, tight play about the subjectivity of memory. A woman negatively associates spaghetti with an unfortunate past incident in Rome. It’s suggested she forget it. “But it happened,” she says.

Told to “unhappen it,” she’s given an alternate, or replacement, incident. “But that’s not true,” she says. “What’s true?” is the question thrown back at her and to the audience in the new production that opened on Friday at a brand new venue.

The current limited run of True is part of the annual Rendezvous with Madness Festival put on by Workman Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization dedicated to the intersection of mental health and artistic expression. The 300-seat CAMH Auditorium is a theatre on the second floor of a new building at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Before the play begins, we’re told the occasional “code call” might be heard.

The audience faces a small staging area with floor-to-ceiling glass as a backdrop that affords clear views onto the street. The minimalist setting is a café/fashion boutique. Actor Layne Coleman appears, dishevelled and wearing pyjama bottoms. Is he a hospital patient? A street person? He’s Roy, the estranged father of three daughters who were just about to commemorate the anniversary of their mother’s death with a quiet dinner.

Roy is unwelcome, to say the least. A pariah, to say the most. Disorientated, he struggles to justify his presence. A note in his hand only partly explains things. It says he has Alzheimer’s and shames any child who doesn’t take care of a parent in need. The question is, who wrote the note? A doctor perhaps, or maybe Roy did, as a manipulative ploy.

If Shakespeare had written the letter he would have snapped off a line such as “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” That’s from King Lear, one of playwright Laborde’s inspirations for True. In French, Roy translates to “king.” Lear also said, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

True supposes memories tell us who we are. One of the daughters has a husband, Franco, played with esprit by Beau Dixon. An upbeat former piano player with substance abuse issues in his past, he’s a walking vibe who believes in new-age ideas about recasting emotional energy with “do-overs.” Other think his re-enactment exercises are weird. “Is it weird to choose another, better life?” he responds. “We have power to change reality.”

Change the memory, change the past – change the present as a result.

Inspired not only by King Lear but Ikebana flower arranging, piano prodigies and quantum multiverse theory, True is a clever play about ideas and a playfully human drama. What it isn’t is an actor’s playground, though. Beyond piano-playing Franco, the characters are one-dimensional. The three daughters are defined by their frailties and past traumas.

Cece has a neurogenic stutter brought on by something she’d rather forget. Anita has the aforementioned aversion to all things Chef Boyardee. Marie, who straight out of rehab impulsively married Franco, can’t stand it when he plays the INXS song Never Tear Us Apart. “Two worlds collided,” the song goes, speaking of multiple universes.

Dementia-stricken Roy is the centrepiece. What the note in his hand doesn’t tell us, but what his daughters will say, is that he was an awful family man. Roy believes his Alzheimer’s was caused by either drinking too much or not enough. Daughter Marie has little doubt it was the former, not the latter.

Roy can be charming: Helping to make guacamole, he’s given the task of squeezing a lemon. “Is that a euphemism?” he jokes. Asked how long he’s had Alzheimer’s, he quips with a smile, “I can’t remember.”

Not remembering works for Roy. Such is the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, to quote a poem that inspired a motion picture title.

Of the cast, actor Dixon shines the most. (Mind you, the script favours his role). I last saw him in Coal Mine Theatre’s excellent production of Florian Zeller’s The Father in 2019. In that play, a father with a deteriorating memory complains that’s he losing all his things. If only we could pick and choose what we remember.

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.)