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Barker knows and writes these Northern Ontario Indigenous voices well.Christie Wong/Handout

  • Title: This is How We Got Here
  • Written and directed by: Keith Barker
  • Actors: Michaela Washburn, Kristopher Bowman, Tamara Podemski and James Dallas Smith
  • Company: Native Earth Performing Arts
  • Venue: Aki Studio
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Feb 16


3.5 out of 4 stars

This is How We Got Here is a play about surviving the suicide of a loved one. But don’t let the heavy subject matter turn you off.

Playwright Keith Barker has written a down-to-earth drama that is as hopeful as it is mournful, full of life and lovable characters. It even provides a few good laughs.

Set in Northern Ontario, the play, now on at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, begins with a search party.

Paul (Kristopher Bowman) is out in the woods looking for his wife, Lucille (Michaela Washburn), accompanied by his best friend Jim (James Dallas Smith). Lucille has disappeared around the one-year anniversary of the death of their teenage son Craig by suicide.

The play keeps flashing back from the search to scenes that took place in the twelve months leading up to it.

In them, we learn that Paul and Lucille have split up since Craig died, and that she has moved in with her sister Liset (Tamara Podemski), who is married to Jim.

These four close-knit family members have been dealing – or, mostly, not dealing – with Craig’s death in different ways.

Paul has tried drinking and a support group; Lucille has tried smashing dishes and befriending a fox that keeps showing up in Liset’s garden.

Liset is relying on her Catholic faith and a relentless can-do attitude to get her through, while Jim, who was the last person in contact with Craig, is hiding his own pain under his usual dopey demeanour. (Jim provides most of the comic relief in the play; he, for instance, has some very funny moments that upend the stereotype that Indigenous men are good trackers.)

It is difficult to write a satisfying play about grief: It’s not an active process, and theatre thrives on action.

So in order to keep This is How We Got Here moving and involving, Barker relies on the chopped chronology of his scenes, which leads the audience to play a kind of guessing game about which fights between friends, sisters and partners took place when.

This sometimes is more confusing than it needs to be. Barker, the artistic director of Native Earth, has directed his own play here – and his production could use lighting and sound more effectively to signal the shifts in time, as well as moves from indoors to outdoors. (The designers in those departments are Jennifer Lennon and Christopher Stanton, respectively.)

Barker’s script, which was nominated for a Governor-General’s Award for Drama, is strong enough that the full picture does eventually comes into focus, however.

Two of the performances in particular are outstanding.

This isn’t the first time that Bowman (a Shaw Festival company member) has reminded me of the young Marlon Brando in his complete embodiment of a working-class character; his Paul is as compelling in his speeches as in his silences. Podemski, meanwhile, walks and talks like a bomb about to go off as Liset; you can see the complex tensions within her in every line, particularly the battle between her frustration with her sister’s fox-obsessed magical thinking and her compassion for it.

Barker knows and writes these Northern Ontario Indigenous voices well. His integration of monologue is not always entirely smooth, mind you; it’s perhaps a bit much to have Paul talk about how he doesn’t talk much, before he launches into a beautifully structured speech that compares depression to a forest fire.

The crux of that speech, however, will stay with me: You can’t outrun a forest fire – and sometimes the only way to save yourself is to run right through it.

Barker has also written a number of monologues in which the characters break out of the story and tell a fable about a fox. This seems odd at first, but the reason for it is explained near the end of the play and left me and most of the audience members around me in tears. Then came the play’s coda and the sniffles around me turned into sobs.

Suicide is a tragedy that can touch any family, of course, but it occurs roughly five to six times more often among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth in this country, according to Alberta’s Centre for Suicide Prevention. It’s brave of Barker to stare that terrible reality in the face without flinching, but audiences will walk away remembering the beauty and love in what he’s written most of all.