Life in the margins in urban society doesn’t encourage emotional health or healthy relationships. This play is an uncompromising story of a group of such people as they struggle to live the best they can with little material or internal resources for them.
In the slums of Kingston, Ontario, an aboriginal and developmentally-challenged young woman named Theresa (Kiersten Rozell) falls for a dim man named Alan (Matthew Vurajic). Meanwhile, their slightly more functional friends, Joe (Derek Roberts) and Sandy (Stephanie Simonetta) endure their own mutually abusive relationship. However, even as Joe and Sandy are improving, Theresa and Alan’s own marriage plummets into its own abyss, creating a tragedy with the one innocent in this story.
With a story that could have felt unrelentingly morose, Studio B instead has created an enthralling production about the working poor. For instance, the play avoids simplistic answers, instead providing a nuanced interplay of the underclass and the emotional fragility of their lives that both contributes to and arises from their situation. With that spirit in mind, the story has a dramatic power as your sympathies get turned upside down along with your assumptions as you understand the characters’ true burdens and the inner strength you need to survive in that social strata. Unfortunately, the ending is not wholly satisfying considering one of the characters appears illogically to get away with murder. It might be true to the story’s pessimism, but a little definite justice would have been a welcome concession to the audience.
Regardless of the script, the players prove themselves equal to this dramatic challenge. That applies especially to Kiersten Rozell, who maintains a careful balance of sympathy and revulsion as her character stumbles about with her bleary priorities and romantic notions. That performance is further enhanced with the actor’s deft use of Theresa’s idiosyncratic dialect, keeping just on this side of comprehensible even as her emotions helplessly overwhelm her in times of crisis. Stephanie Simonetta is the perfect counterpoint as Sandy, a woman who feels the most empowered of the bunch, but still unconsciously clings to a lout like Joe in his worst moments. In a way, Sandy has painful burdens of her own, but she has the inner strength to endure them with a vital grace.
While the women hold the centre stage, the male actors show equal talent themselves. Derek Roberts’ character first appears on stage like a stereotypical lower class brute without Marlon Brando’s sex appeal, but he soon shows us the much softer side of a lonely soul he dares bring forth only in private. Further, for all his faults, he is still the person who manages to turn his life around to some degree, to the point where he is a relative voice of reason and compassion at the end. To have a character make that kind of transition and have it feel natural is the product of a fine actor that London needs more of.
Matthew Vurajic parallels that with even more astonishing skill as Alan. As much as he initially comes off as a stupider version of Barney Rubble, Vurajic is able to deepen his character perfectly, such as with a powerful soulful rendition of Billy Joel’s Always a Woman to Me to his love. In that way, we powerfully gain a forlorn hope that he could be what Theresa needs. To watch Alan instead futilely struggle with his legitimate frustrations in his life until his psyche rots into a senselessly prideful defiance of reality is to witness a modern tragedy that will rock your soul. In short, Vurajic creates a thespian masterwork that I hope will be the first of much more from him.
Finally, Collin Halfday is a bizarrely effective presence of his own as The Man, a kind of darkly deranged street version of Jiminy Cricket. This character has no advice to give, only an apocalyptic spiritual surrender of the soul to the story’s threatening misery. In short, he becomes the extreme that haunts the fears of the male characters and a measure of the despair anyone in the story could sink to.
As for the stagecraft, this is the best use of Fanshawe’s theatre I have ever seen. The seating is arranged to give the performance area the maximum feeling of width which gives the best flexibility possible for the story without extensive prop arrangements being necessary. What they do simply with a door prop to suggest barriers and the violation of them shows a welcome faith in their audience’s imagination. Likewise, the use of sound is effective in its own way, especially in creating that basic irritation every new parent has to endure, and whose absence is a chilling presence any sane one fears. Put it all together, and you have all the grimy ambiance of the modern underclass without having to be so obvious that it would drive you away.
If you come to this play expecting some light fare, you’re in for a painful shock. However, if you want to be challenged with a play about urban life and its challenges for the poor we ignore too often, then you owe it to yourself to learn some hard truths eloquently told on stage.