Criminals in Love

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

By George F. Walker
Directed by Dave Walker
Performed by Kerri Tveit, Nick Regan, Aaron Straus, Meagan Maloney, Caroline Murray and Joel Armstrong
A Next Generation Theatre Production
The Arts Project
October 11-14, 2006

To lose hope often involves feeling that your life and future are out of your control. This play is a captivatingly humourous drama about such despair being conquered in the strangest circumstances, even when things seem to be at their worst. Junior is a despondent high school dropout who dreams to live a normal married life with his girlfriend, Gail, even while he fears for her being around him. They have hope that not even the meeting of Junior’s new friend, the drunken, yet eccentrically intelligent bum William, can break. However, Junior’s worthless imprisoned father, Henry, pushes him to become a criminal and outside events conspire to force him to give in to that life. Yet even as the strange criminal, Whineva, hooks her claws into Junior and his friends, their dire predicament actually begins to spiritually strengthen them in their own way, while their enemies weaken. At the end, even when things are apparently plummeting to disaster, the forlorn misfits come to realize it has been deeply worth it.

As someone who is given to darkly hopeless moods, I found this play as moving as it is hilarious. The central hero is a young man who is firmly convinced that he has no future and is worthless. It is so bad that he has sabotaged his life by dropping out of school in shame of his father while depending on Gail to be his salvation, a role she does not want. But there is a underlying redemption theme, as Junior begins to grow when he befriends William, a drunken man who may be worse off than the boy, but he has an amusing wit that allows people with patience to appreciate his company. That transition neatly parallels how he and his friends’ outside lives begin to crumble when Junior mysteriously loses his job and the trashy criminal, Whineva, forces them to cooperate. Yet even while the hard luck heroes begin to slide into apparent criminal ruin, they manage to grow. For instance, Henry and Whineva gradually become weaker, with Henry, once able to physically beat his son in the prison visitor room, now becoming equally intimidated by William who dishes out his own chastisement. Meanwhile, Whineva descends from being a disturbingly sleazy small time crook to a being a completely insane terrorist who becomes totally incapacitated at the end. Meanwhile, Junior and his friends grow from helpless pawns to being far more in control of their destiny. Even when they are surrounded by the police and there is no escape, the heroes find they can live with that; William is confident he can arrange a good defense for them in court while Junior and Gail enjoy the fact that they can choose their fate now better than their enemies can. In effect, Walker has created a strange, but effective, happy ending in which the heroes are in terrible trouble with the law, but you can’t help but feel it’s a small price to pay for their inner peace.

However, there is one plot hole that breaks the believability of the story; there are two major conversations in the story where blatantly criminals acts are both discussed and done, apparently in the visitors room of a prison. We are expected to believe that prisoners can conspire to encourage criminal acts and even assault visitors without the guards immediately intervening and punishing them. That is a ridiculous notion that hurts the plot and undermines the realism. The players make up for that flaw with endearing performances, though. Nick Regan is wonderful as the quietly desperate Junior, a young man with no hope except for what he wants to see in Gail. It is almost inspirational in a bizarre manner how Regan’s character grows to accept he can control his own destiny to some degree even when he is about be arrested. Karri Tveit creates a fascinating contrast as Gail, a young woman who seems to have a healthy confidence, only to have it collapse in the face of the villain’s more forceful personality. In a way, she needs to earn her own strength just as urgently as Junior, and she does not disappoint. By contrast, her best female friend, Sandy (smoothly played by Caroline Murray) is more of a feather in the wind, recklessly ready to try nearly any questionable activity once if it benefits her. Her character is more static, which adequately fulfills her role as a subtle sounding board to Gail’s trepidation.

However, the real treat of the play is Joel Armstrong as William, a drunken wastrel with all sorts of hidden talents and qualities. Despite his young age and appearance, Armstrong creates an engagingly hilarious character as a seemingly stereotypical homeless man who becomes far more. As a result, William’s change from a nearly dead man to a hero who will do anything to help his new friends feels completely believable even while his own patter tries to hide it. That performance is a masterpiece of thespian skill and Armstrong steals the show far better than Whineva can steal anything.

The villains of the play fulfill their own dramatic roles effectively, albeit with different styles. Aaron Straus plays Henry, Junior’s imprisoned father with a subtle veneer of bullying cowardice. It is a nature that would allow him to assault his own son to get his way, while kowtowing to anyone threatening him to do that. In short, Straus creates the epitome of the worthless father that no one should have to bear. By contrast, Meagan Maloney plays Whineva deliberately with enough ham to supply a supermarket. She starts with a disturbingly disheveled creepiness and depicts her slide into insanity with a joyful abandon to the point where she would be literally chewing the scenery if there were any on the stage. Seeing her writhe incoherently at the end of the story, you can never mistake who is the true victor of this tale.

The staging of this play is extremely simple with only a table, chairs and a couch. That works in the play’s favour, allowing the viewer’s imagination to supply the details that the show’s budget can’t do on its own. A spiritual journey story does not have to have exotic settings or material success. This story proves that point, with a tale of heroes who face a poor fate at the end, but who have grown enough to accept that fate with a might their enemies cannot understand.