- Title: Casey and Diana
- Written by: Nick Green
- Director: Andrew Kushnir
- Actors: Sean Arbuckle, Laura Condlln, Linda Kash, Davinder Malhi, Krystin Pellerin, Sophia Walker
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Studio Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to June 17, 2023
The Stratford Festival is clearly prepared for the devastating effect that Casey and Diana will have on audience members.
At a particularly moving moment in the second act of Nick Green’s new play set in a Toronto AIDS hospice in the early, pre-antiretroviral 1990s, an usher passed a box of tissues down the row next to her. I watched patron after patron after patron avail themselves of it.
Casey and Diana – deftly directed by Andrew Kushnir in its world premiere, on stage until June 17 – is an emotionally powerful, next-generation look back at an era where fear made end of life for people with AIDS harder than it should have been. It is also a clear-eyed celebration of the courageous caregivers, often women, and a people’s princess who combatted that stigma.
It takes place at Casey House hospice in Toronto in the week leading up to Princess Diana’s visit on October 25, 1991. Pictures of the Princess of Wales meeting with and shaking hands with a man with visible Kaposi sarcoma lesions did a great deal to alter public attitudes in Canada – and internationally.
But Green’s play focuses on the complex effect her impending visit had on residents, staff and volunteers.
Thomas (Sean Arbuckle), a frank and funny older gay man covered in those purple patches, which were for so long the symbol of the AIDS crisis, has outlived three roommates in the hospice’s attic – and is sure he doesn’t have the gas in his tank to outlive a fourth, a young man named Andre (Davinder Malhi) who seems barely out of his teens.
Ostracized from his biological family, Andre seemingly has no one – and is shutting himself down and others out. He hasn’t had the opportunity to form a found family yet in the gay community – and is awed by Thomas’s stories of cruising in Queen’s Park or even eating at Frankie’s Diner.
Thomas finds a new reason to fight to live in the news that the princess – whose televised wedding a decade earlier he can recount in detail – is coming. For Andre, meanwhile, the thought that his estranged mother might actually speak with him if he tells her that he is meeting with Princess Diana is both tantalizing and a torture.
Working at Casey House, nurse Vera (Sophia Walker) keeps her emotions at bay as she aims to both keep things running and prepare the residents for protocol.
Less reticent to share her own feelings is a middle-aged volunteer named Marjorie (Linda Kash). She is an outsider in her own way – full of compassion, but not always in control of her emotions. Working through her own grief, she crosses boundaries with Andre in ways that, at different moments, help or hurt him.
In a play full of excellent performances both showy and subtle, Kash’s is the most unique and indelible – a rounded portrait of one of those women who have been pushed aside in society due to not conforming to sexist expectations in shape or sensibility and yet give so much back to society in their unpaid labour at hospices, or charities, or, indeed, at theatre companies.
In a program note, Kushnir gives some of the background of why Casey House, founded by June Callwood, was so needed – recounting the story of two hospice workers visiting a young gay man in a hospital in Toronto and finding his food lying cold on a tray outside of his room because staff were too afraid to bring it to him.
There to represent this terror of touch and the detrimental effects of social distancing is Thomas’s short-haired, short-tempered, sister, Pauline (Laura Condlln). Appearing as Princess Di, or a vision of her, meanwhile, Krystin Pellerin perfectly captures the icon’s image of open-hearted kindness and approachable elegance. (How Green connects these two opposite characters theatrically is a dramatic coup.)
As an elder millennial playwright, Green has often aimed to be a bridge, a conduit of memory, between generations. In Undercovered, he revisited the 1981 police raids on the Pisces bathhouse in Edmonton; in his Dora-winning play Body Politic, he memorialized the pioneering Toronto queer publication of that name.
Known for choosing compelling subject matter, and dramatizing it in accessible way, Green also shows a capacity for truly touching images and poetic language in Casey and Diana.
The conclusion of his play may be a little overly telegraphed – but that’s not a major issue as the execution is impeccable. Likewise, there are a few examples of monologues and scenes involving Thomas that would be more effective pared down – but Arbuckle’s performance is robust and riveting enough to carry the play during these moments of overemphasis.
In the end, I didn’t want to have spent less time with these beautiful characters; I mourned instead all the time lost with human beings like Thomas and Andre – the decades of life devoured by AIDS/HIV, but even more brutally the final moments of connection and touch and love missed due to stigma.