Ian Brown's memoir The Boy in the Moon has come to the stage in Toronto at a fascinating moment, when the deaf and disability arts movement has moved from the fringes of theatre to its mainstream, almost all at once.
On Broadway, you'll find an actress with muscular dystrophy playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie, while in Toronto, a deaf actress's stunning performance as Horatio in a Toronto production of Hamlet seems the one to beat as we approach award season. Over at Soulpepper, you'll also find a troupe of actors with Down syndrome performing their own startling adaptation of Romeo and Juliet called Wildfire.
The buzzword associated with much of this work is inclusivity – and, beyond its altruistic resonances, the artistic idea that lies behind it is that theatre can only be enriched by expanding its horizons and having its performance clichés overthrown.
And so, playwright Emil Sher's stage adaptation of The Boy in the Moon, at first glance anyway, might seem like a theatrical throwback. It's a piece about disability from the outside looking in; sometimes in awe, sometimes in horror, always with an aching love, but always from the outside.
And yet, in a way, Sher's play – which both pares down Brown's book and expands on it – is a tragedy about the limits of inclusivity, a story of a family struggling to figure out how to care for and live with and love a severely disabled son and hitting walls of understanding and endurance.
"Instead of bringing us closer, Walker scatters us," Ian, played here with a mournful intelligence by David Storch, says at one point – and, indeed, the three actors in the show roam, apart, through the vastness of a stripped-down stage, nowhere to hide and rarely a place to rest.
Regular readers of The Globe and Mail will be familiar with Brown's insightful writings about his son, Walker, who was born with a genetic mutation called cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC) shared by only a few hundred people around the world. Walker is unable to speak, unable to eat except through a tube in his stomach and, as both the play and the memoir begin, wakes his parents every night with the sound of his grunting as he punches himself in the head over and over.
Much of Sher's play transforms Brown's personal prose, his grappling with his son's situation in his head and with his readers, into monologues, but Storch finds a real dramatic urgency within Brown's distinct writerly voice, its humour and its honesty. That honesty can be brutal at times – as when he talks frankly about considering killing himself and his son. (The subject is one Sher tackled in an earlier play called Mourning Dove, inspired by Robert Latimer's 1993 killing of his daughter.)
While Sher's play adapts Brown's book, it's also about the book itself – a dissection of and even, at times, rebuttal to it. Ian's wife, journalist and Globe contributor Johanna Schneller (played by an intense Liisa Repo-Martell), who Sher interviewed, is given the opportunity to comment, with a candour that is apparently common to her household, and says what she did and did not agree with in her husband's depiction of their life with Walker.
Even the writers' daughter – Walker's older sister, Hayley (played by dancer/actor Kelly McNamee) – gets a voice here. "My main concern is that people will think that my dad has spoken for Walker," she says, of the book. "No one can speak for Walker."
That is, indeed, a challenge that director Chris Abraham wrestles with throughout his production. Brown's book is subtitled A Father's Search for his Disabled Son and Abraham is similarly searching in the visual elements of his show. Just as Walker's parents visit doctors, therapists and philosophers in their search for cures, treatments, understanding and acceptance, the director tries multiple to ways to include Walker in the story.
At times, beautiful photos of the boy are projected on the wall – even as Ian undercuts them, describing them as well-timed illusions or fantasies. At other times, McNamee is called upon to evoke Walker's chaotic physicality through counterpoint – crossing the stage in highly controlled movements en pointe. (Monica Dottor collaborated with Abraham on the compelling choreography.)
There's also a ring of light, like a hollowed-out spotlight, that moves its way around the stage, sometimes illuminating Ian clearly, sometimes creeping away from him and heading on its own trajectory. While its precise meaning and relationship to Walker is hard to pin down, it's deeply poignant. (Andre du Toit and Kimberly Purtell are both credited with the lighting design.)
This is one of Abraham's most evocative, almost spiritual stagings, loving to the contours of the new theatre space that has been built for his Crow's Theatre in Toronto's east end. While the stage is kept almost bare, the loading door and another smaller entrance to the stage have been left open, providing tantalizing glimpses of an outside world. Trees and bushes seen (and smelt) through one represent both a cottage the family retreats to, and the deeply moving vision that a shaman, visited by Johanna in a moment of desperation, has of Walker and his life quest: He is a tree trying to see his reflection in the water at the bottom of a well.
In the end, when the family finally moves Walker into a group home with mixed feelings and broken hearts, the three actors congregate in a little rectangle of light. They have more freedom now, but their world has also become smaller.
Sher's script trips up from time to time – as when Ian heads off to France to meet Jean Vanier, the Catholic philosopher and founder of L'Arche; it's too complicated a journey to be summed up in a scene.
But the questions in Abraham's staging, like the articulate uncertainty in Brown's writing, resonate, linger and haunt.
The Boy in the Moon continues to May 27 (crowstheatre.com)