Shakespeare’s weepy poet-king, Richard II, defined himself so fundamentally by his sadness that he was willing to part with everything save his grief. If we’re really no more than the sum of our experiences, are we disproportionately authored by the experiences that ache – as though, by some inverse alchemy, we become most real to ourselves at the bull’s-eye of loss?
An obsession with painful memories is a major theme in The Enchanted Loom, a new production at Toronto’s Factory Theatre by debut playwright and neurologist Suvendrini Lena. It’s a play made from several intriguing building blocks, and the inextricability of memory from self is just one. Another is the context: The play is set in Toronto during the massive protests against the Sri Lankan government in 2009 – when more than 1,000 Tamil protesters blocked the Gardiner Expressway. It was a haunting and strange moment in the city’s history, pitting the Tamil community’s utter desperation against the workaday interests of commuters. For a few days, Toronto traffic seemed stalled by a conflict 10,000 kilometres away – and drivers were hardly pleased.
The Enchanted Loom is about a Tamil family that has escaped the civil war and resettled in Toronto. The father, Thangan (Sam Kalilieh), was a journalist in Sri Lanka who was imprisoned and tortured by pro-governmental factions. While beaten, he incurred trauma to his head that resulted in scarring on his hippocampus. The injury causes a debilitating form of epilepsy that, now in Canada, continues to manifest as seizures, incontinence, confusion, hallucinations and difficulty getting around.
The family is at odds with how to deal with his illness and the detriment it causes to Thangan’s quality of life. His son Kanaan (Kawa Ada) is studying neurology and is in favour of surgery that can stop the seizures by removing a section of the hippocampus. His wife, Sevi (Zorana Sadiq), is also on board for whatever remedy modern science can bring. His young daughter Kavitha (Asha Vijayasingham) is more circumspect, worrying the surgery will change her father in some irrevocable way. But the real resistance to surgery comes from Thangan himself, because his (dis)ability connects him to a past he refuses to leave behind. During his seizures, Thangan hears the voice of his other son, Kavalan, who died in prison in Sri Lanka.
It’s all good material for an ambitious and affecting play about the devastation of loss and the notion that identity is cumulative and unstable. And the stage is well set to get there; there’s an elegant minimalism to Joanna Yu’s design, which is as white and sterile as an operating room, and has the audience sitting on either side.
But Lena’s ability to enliven her ideas is undermined by stilted writing. Much of the dialogue is expository, preoccupied with making sure we understand the details of both the medical procedures and the family’s dilemma. When it leaves exposition, it veers toward operatic turns of phrase. Of losing her son, Sevi says: “I swallowed his loss like my ration of rice.” Of their courtship, Thangan says: “Did I not hold you like a maiden in first bloom?” Lines like these might work with the skilled construction of a heightened theatrical world, and delivered with powerful undercurrents of feeling. Instead, they feel incommensurate with their own motivations and with the play’s otherwise naturalistic aesthetic.
Thangan’s lack of depth as a character is especially problematic in a play that hinges on the threat of its loss. In order for the story to work, we need to understand the complexity of his personality; instead, we’re given science in lieu of substance. We’re told how much Thangan suffers – instead of feeling it or witnessing more than its physical manifestation – and his grief never grows into anything more interesting or accessible than an idea. The only moment that rang with real human pathos was when he explained to his surgeon (Peter Bailey) that he couldn’t have sex with his wife for fear that he might faint or defecate in her arms. Suddenly, the indignity of his condition had the charge of real pain.
Marjorie Chan’s direction doesn’t do much to solve the stylistic discrepancies in the script or to bring warmth and authenticity to her actors’ performances. This felt particularly acute in the character of Kavitha. Vijayasingham gave a lot of sing-song line-delivery, which I suppose was meant to signal that she was playing a young child. But it only served to disconnect her from the text and place the production at a further emotional remove. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night nerves, but there seemed to be a castwide tendency not to let one another’s lines sink it.
About two-third’s of the way through the play, we learn more about Kavalan’s death; it’s information that sheds light on Sevi’s character and implicates her in a troubling way. Again, it’s a high-stakes situation that would be fascinating to watch unpacked with strong, psychological writing. But when Sevi says, “I wished I could have burned my skin,” we have no clue why she didn’t. When a play is about an idea, and not the people living this idea, it’s amazing how quickly the story feels repetitive, and how little added information brings us any closer to a sense of truth.
The Enchanted Loom continues to Nov. 27 (factorytheatre.ca).
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