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Irene Poole and Matthew Edison as the Barrett-Brownings.John Lauener

How Do I Love Thee?

Written by Florence Gibson MacDonald

Directed by Ken Gass

Starring Matthew Edison and Irene Poole

At Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs in Toronto

Two stars

Statistically, your best bet to win an Academy Award is either to star in a biopic – or play a character with a mental illness or physical disability. According to an analysis done for the BBC a couple years ago, fully 36 per cent of those who have walked away from the Oscars named best actor or best actress have done one or the other.

The stage is hardly immune from the currents of the film world – and, at least in terms of subject, there are a couple of Oscar-contender performances on Toronto stages right now.

How Do I Love Thee? is a stage biopic about a rock-star writer. You're familiar with the formula: A charismatic but difficult genius with a dangerous addiction. A partner who sacrifices personal ambition to care for the genius and their child – and stands by despite it all.

What makes Florence Gibson MacDonald's 2010 play stand out is that the usual genders of this scenario are reversed. In this case, 19th-century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the laudanum addict tossing off sonnets and epic poems under the influence – and Robert Browning is her second-rate, smitten companion, unable to write a line after they run off to Italy together.

Irene Poole plays Elizabeth – and really rolls the role up and smokes it, right from the first scene, where she hangs upside down from a swing and blows, "I shall be a poet!" Meanwhile, Matthew Edison flounces ineffectually as Robert, who woos Elizabeth with letters, but only discovers her dark habits after they have eloped.

MacDonald's dialogue is inspired by the passionate writing of her subjects – "I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach" – and it is difficult to tell where the Barrett-Brownings's actual words end and her invented ones begin. That's a testament to the playwright's ability to mimic embroidered written language, but it also makes for a play often too dense to be played aloud. Poole pulls it off for the most part, but Edison can't connect with the torrent of words; he fakes them, delivering an extended flute solo in the first act, then gets stuck in an angry rut after intermission. The words become a background hum over which everyone gesticulates in Ken Gass's production – especially in the repetitive second act.

John, a dramatic device played by David Schurmann, pops up to provide a sounding board for Robert; dryly recite facts ("The Seraphim, her first publication, 1838"); and lighten the mood with aphorism ("All art is offensive – that's how we know it's art."). Nora McLellan gets a meatier supporting role, as Elizabeth's potion provider; she is moving and genuine and criminally underused.

Ultimately, though How Do I Love Thee? may reverse a cliché, I'm not sure that makes it any less of a cliché.


Written and performed by Sara Farb

Directed by Richard Greenblatt

At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto

Two and a half stars

R-E-B-E-C-C-A, written and performed by rising Stratford Festival star Sara Farb, introduces us to two Rebeccas about to turn 18 years old. They would have been born on the same day, in fact, but one was born seven weeks early and is developmentally disabled.

We meet Rebecca A as she mutters to herself on the way to the time-out stairs after having cursed about not getting a second piece of birthday cake. She has a crush on a camp councillor named David – and yearns to be back at camp in seven weeks time, where there are no time-out stairs and she isn't treated like a baby.

We meet Rebecca B at that camp, where she is a councillor for the regular kids. Depressed, she has abandoned her charges to grumble and self-harm by the water to celebrate her birthday. Speaking to a video camera, she tells us she relates to the "retards" who she believes live life purely and don't stifle their emotions – unlike all the fakers around her.

Farb does a loving job of portraying Rebecca A, never overdoing the physical and verbal tics. Perhaps it's too loving: Intentionally or not, she's painted an idyllic portrait of what it is to be developmentally disabled – free from the anguish that Rebecca B suffers with her knowledge of the world. Again, a reversed cliché?

R-E-B-E-C-C-A is, ultimately, a pair of character portraits rather than a play – a few metaphysical moments at the end don't change that. After the show, I looked at the press release: Farb has a younger sister, born seven weeks premature and developmentally disabled. R-E-B-E-C-C-A is her imagining of what her sister might have been. That context makes the exercise really poignant. But for the show to be poignant on its own, that heartbreaking yearning needs to somehow be incorporated within it.