Problem Child — A Modern Masterpiece?

Pardon me while I rhapsodize about a play that my own company is putting on.

Problem Child, by George F. Walker, is brilliant. I liked the script right away, and I went to Toronto to catch Londoner Kristen Thompson’s Dora-winning performance at the Factory Theatre in 1997. I’ve wanted to stage it for over five years now and finally, I took the plunge — Ausable Theatre’s production of Problem Child will run at the Grand’s McManus Studio Theatre from January 31st to February 8th (672-8800).

The play is honest and compassionate, and it deals with fundamental human strivings. What makes it truly great though is that along with its artistic and literary merits, it’s funny, entertaining and accessible as well. That is a rare combination in an era when art and popular culture usually don’t co-exist on the same stage.

The play is about a young couple whose baby girl has been taken away by a government agency. They are cooped up in a slightly run-down motel room, negotiating with a social worker, and hoping to get their child back. Like parents in similar situations in London, across Canada and around the world, they are desperate.

Allen MacInnis, who just directed Shippel the Plumber at the Grand, sees in Problem Child humanity’s choice between civilization and barbarism. He calls it Walker’s masterpiece.

I was initially attracted to the great characters and the humour, and then its exploration of justice, and how strong an impulse it can be. As we went through rehearsals though, I came to think of it more and more in terms of optimism and pessimism and faith – faith in institutions, faith that justice will win out, faith that things will be OK again some day and faith in another person.

Problem Child won Dora and Chalmers Awards for Best New Play when it first came out in 1997. In this, the first London production, the couple is played by Rachel Holden-Jones and Tyler Parr, Julia Webb is the social worker and Niall Cooke is the motel employee. They are all fine actors who are up to the challenges of a great script.

I think that the last time a Walker play was seen in London was Hit and Run Theatre’s version of Beautiful City, which was also my very first directing gig. Before that, there were productions of Filthy Rich at the Grand, The Art of War on campus, and two versions of Zastrozzi — one at the New Arts Festival in 1995 and one at Centre Stage in 1997, directed by Ken Livingstone, with a cast that included Wayne Burnett and Sonja Smits.

Ausable Theatre is not the only company in town currently interested in Walker though; I shouldn’t gossip, but Theatre Soup has had their collective eye on Bagdad Saloon, which premiered in Toronto in 1973. If this is an indication that we’ll be seeing more Walker plays in London in the years to come, then I’m all for it.