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The Thrill: Performances save a play that is wanting in perspective

Nigel Bennett’s Julian treats Elora (Lucy Peacock) with an air of gentle condescension even in their love scenes.

Cylla von Tiedemann

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Thrill
Written by
Judith Thompson
Directed by
Dean Gabourie
Actors
Lucy Peacock, Nigel Bennett, Patricia Collins and Robert Persichini
Venue
Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival
City
Stratford
Runs Until
Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lucy Peacock's girlish Elora sits flopped across her power wheelchair, wearing short skirts and Mary Janes, her auburn hair in a thick braid. The first image that comes to mind is of a sweet little rag doll. But don't you dare call her that.

"I feel like some kind of warrior princess," Elora declares early on in The Thrill, the provocative new Judith Thompson drama that opened on Tuesday at the Stratford Festival. And later, gleefully employing a non-PC term, she refers to herself as "Super Crip."

Elora is indeed both a warrior – a formidable lawyer and a fierce disability-rights crusader – and seemingly superhuman in her ability to overcome her degenerative disease. And like all superheroes, she has an arch-enemy: a mild-mannered Irish author who advocates mercy killing for the severely disabled. But when the author, Julian (Nigel Bennett), visits her hometown of Charleston, S.C., on a book tour, Elora's efforts to confront him take an unexpected romantic turn.

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Elora is simultaneously delighted and appalled. After all, this is a man who, in theory, thinks that her parents should have euthanized her at birth. Or, as she puts it in her down-home Southern way, "Lovin' him is like the chicken lovin' the axe."

If you haven't already fallen for Elora based on my description, then you certainly will when watching Stratford star Peacock's frank, funny, unsentimental portrayal. Her bravura performance is the one true thrill in Thompson's otherwise problematic play.

Commissioned by Stratford and now premiering in its Studio Theatre, The Thrill is loosely based on the life of the late U.S. disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson. In particular, as Thompson reveals in her program notes, it was inspired by Johnson's bracingly candid 2003 article in The New York Times Magazine, in which she recounted her difficult meetings with Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer.

Where Johnson came away merely forced to admit that Singer was a decent human being, Thompson's play takes the imaginative leap that sees two such foes sexually attracted to one another. In doing so, the playwright adds a further emotional layer to what is already an emotionally fraught issue. Just as Elora has personal reasons for her anti-euthanasia stance, Julian's beliefs stem from the painful experience of watching his sister die horribly from a wasting disease and wishing he could have put her out of her misery. But Julian and Elora's love and Elora's own rapid physical decline compel both of them to consider the other's point of view.

Where Thompson stands, however, is never really in doubt. The Thrill is essentially an extension of the argument found in RARE, her documentary-theatre project first seen at last year's Toronto Fringe Festival. In that show, created with Down syndrome adults, a charming young woman, Krystal Hope Nausbaum, implored pregnant mothers not to abort fetuses with her genetic disorder.

Here, the smart, tough, vibrant Elora is a living rebuke to parents who want the option of not raising a severely disabled child. Thompson gives Julian few of the rational counter-arguments that thinkers such as Singer present; instead, his convictions are shown to be built on a personal inability to deal with suffering.

No surprise, then, that the play belongs almost exclusively to Peacock. Her Elora gazes up at us with bewitching eyes and a Cheshire cat grin as she zips about in her chair. You come to barely notice her crabbed hands – "dead birds," she calls them when they seize up – or her frail, twisted body. She's an irrepressible life force even when being fed from a tube or joking about her ever-present bedpan.

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Bennett's Julian is harder to like and he treats Elora with an air of gentle condescension even in his love scenes. You can never really believe that he is besotted with her. She is more clearly adored by Francis, her gay caregiver – played by Robert Persichini with a sad-sack charm that recalls Philip Seymour Hoffman. Only we are never given to understand why his devotion to Elora exceeds even his love for his husband.

Hannah, Julian's elderly, semi-demented mother, is a better developed character. Thompson uses her to bolster the play's argument against institutionalization, and she's bravely and touchingly portrayed by Patricia Collins.

Director Dean Gabourie and designer Eo Sharp confine the play's action to an abstract square space that vaguely suggests a boxing ring. But there are times when Gabourie's staging could use more punch.

The expressive lighting is by Itai Erdal, who, as it happens, has a show of his own about mercy killing. How to Disappear Completely, a solo piece in which Erdal describes assisting the suicide of his cancer-stricken mother, can be seen this week in Stratford and at Toronto's SummerWorks festival. It offers the perspective that is missing from The Thrill.

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