Dementia has, unsurprisingly, been on the mind of a large number of Canadian theatre creators lately; it’s been on all of our minds, after all.
In the past year alone, our stages have seen the premieres of Edmonton playwright Beth Graham’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, which approached the question of Alzheimer’s from a right-to-die angle well before Gillian Bennett’s wrenching suicide note captured the nation’s attention, and Montreal playwright Francois Archambault’s Tu te souviendras de moi (You Will Remember Me), which brilliantly examines Quebec’s aging population from philosophical and cultural and political angles.
Now comes Toronto playwright Rosa Laborde’s True to take the question of deteriorating memories into more metaphysical territory. Speedily remounted after its Fringe Festival success, it is a tightly woven, highly emotional one-act play filled with humour and heartbreak – and featuring a daring ending that strikes me as extremely cruel in the kindness it extends to its characters.
Sisters Marie (Sabrina Grdevich), Cece (Ingrid Rae Doucet) and Anita (Shannon Taylor) run a small coffee-and-clothes shop on Toronto’s Queen Street West. One evening, in wanders their estranged father, Roy (Layne Coleman), in his pyjamas. He comes bearing a note explaining that he has Alzheimer’s and admonishing his daughters for abandoning their parent in his time of need.
The anonymous note writer could very well be paraphrasing King Lear: How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. Indeed, with three daughters and a deceased mother, True has many echoes of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy – itself seeing prominent productions far and wide from Stratford to Chicago to London at the moment due, it seems, to our increasing anxieties about dementia.
But Laborde wants to explore a Lear scenario from the thankless children’s perspective, traditionally given short shift in Shakespeare. It quickly becomes clear that Roy was a drunk and a philanderer – and perhaps worse. Should his parental sins be forgiven just because he has now forgotten them? And is Roy really as helpless as he seems? As with Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain (adapted into the film Away From Her by Sarah Polley), there is a question of possible emotional manipulation.
True asks huge moral questions, but the play adds a metaphysical element through the introduction of Marie’s kind, New Age husband Franco (the fabulous Scott McCord, whose piano playing enriches the production through).
Memory, as scientists have discovered in recent years, isn’t a library full of books that slowly yellow and fall apart, but more like an iCloud full of files that are altered each time we access them – sometimes significantly. As Franco puts it, “Memory is about as reliable as cellphone reception.”
Franco, a recovering addict who is a little jealous of Roy’s ability to completely overwrite or erase his trespasses in his mind, has an idea he credits to an unnamed theoretical physicist that if everyone who remembers the same moment forgets it, then the actual event ceases to exist and an alternative timeline of events open ups.
This seems too good to be true – and in pursuing this route in relation to a family trauma, True heads in the direction of fantasy or wish fulfilment. A debatable dramatic choice, but the result is unquestionably devastating.
Laborde’s site-specific production takes place in an actual café and clothes shop that seats just 30. There’s an intensity that comes from being so close to the actors – especially Coleman’s brave performance as Roy, who perhaps remembers and forgets at too narratively convenient moments.
But True would be equally effective in a regular theatre, I suspect – and one hopes it ends up in ones across the country. My fear isn’t that too many playwrights are writing plays about dementia right now, but that too many are writing excellent plays about it like True – and, inevitably, some deserving ones will be forgotten.
In one of those odd coincidences, two hit plays about misunderstood witches both reopened in Toronto on Thursday night. Wicked, the smash Stephen Schwartz musical with a book by My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman, returned on tour for its fourth pass through the city, while director Albert Schultz’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with its powerful central performance by Stuart Hughes as John Proctor, reopened at Soulpepper.
Both plays are political allegories. Wicked is, it’s always surprising to be reminded, very straightforward and uncompromising in its critique of America’s war on terror. Premiered just months after the invasion of Iraq, it features a wizard who executes “regime change” on leaders who are inconvenient to his political agenda and capitalizes on fears of “witches” at home to maintain support; he looks very much like George W. Bush in Wayne Schroder’s cornpone performance on the current tour.
As for The Crucible, Miller wrote this 1953 parable about the Salem witch trials in reaction to the Second Red Scare and the metaphorical witch hunts of McCarthyism. The only problem is that, in contrast to the non-existent weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion of Iraq, there were Soviet spies in America in the 1940s – and communism, unlike witchcraft, actually existed. There’s also a strain of misogyny in Miller’s play full of hysterical and jealous women that hasn’t dated entirely well – it can, dangerously, be misinterpreted as being about the dangers of taking the word of young women over those of older men.
The substitution of “witch” for “terrorist” is no less politically problematic, but Wicked is a little more complex in its exploration of good and evil than I had remembered. (I chose to see it again rather than The Crucible, which my colleague Martin Morrow gave four stars the last time it was at Soulpepper.)
Elphaba, the wicked witch of the title, is well belted and acted on this tour by Laurel Harris, but as always I found the “good” witch Glinda to be a more intriguing character. Kara Lindsay is the funniest actress I have ever seen in the part, and then a little chilling as she enters the Eva Peron persona that gently undercuts the feel-good fairy-tale ending.