Navigating the world with OCD in the funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan

Conor Ling, Gabriella Circosta, Allison Shea Reed & Tristan Claxton. Photo by Alice Xue Photography.

 

RedWit Theatre invites us into lived experiences of a young woman living with OCD in Allison Shea Reed’s funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan, directed by Sean O’Brien and running now in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre. Emily has lived with Olivia—her OCD personified—since childhood, and struggles daily with what that means for her relationships and her life. She longs to break out of her comfort zone and enter into a relationship, but will Olivia let her?

Emily (Allison Shea Reed) is a warm, smart and funny young woman who’s been living with OCD her entire life, personified by her helicopter protector, hyper-judgemental joined-at-the-hip best friend Olivia (Gabriella Circosta). Olivia is Emily’s personal flight response attendant, her fierce warrior defender, and her nagging inner voice of self-doubt; the one that tells her she’s too much, a burden, that everyone would be better off if she didn’t exist. Emily also has her roommate and friend, the culinarily gifted Rowan (Tristan Claxton); supportive and on her side, he understands, accepts and is respectful of Emily’s relationship with Olivia.

Enter the fun-loving, charming Graham (Conor Ling), who Emily really likes and, despite her hesitation to go with her attraction—and big pushback from Olivia, who prophesizes doom and gloom about any prospective romantic relationship—decides to date him. The added stress and unknowns about having a new person in her life, and sharing her space both physically and emotionally, make for extra tension between Emily and Olivia. Despite her courageous, and even optimistic, attempts to get out into the world and open up to new people, it’s still a struggle for Emily, even as she openly communicates her needs—needs that may seem strange—to those around her.

As their relationship progresses, and after much consideration, Emily decides to divulge her condition to Graham, who responds positively and even shares his own experiences with mental illness. But Olivia wonders if he’s being honest and realistic about life with Emily, and is skeptical about how long this honeymoon period will last. For a while, Emily has her world to herself—until things begin to get tense with Graham, and Olivia returns.

Beautifully drawn, sensitive work from the cast in this peek into a life experience that we don’t often see portrayed on stage. Shea Reed gives a complex, compelling performance as Emily; high-functioning and managing her illness, Emily’s cheery, good-humoured self is constantly bombarded with negative internal messaging and impulses toward repetitive actions, especially during stressful times. Longing for a “normal life”, she tries to stay positive, and does the best she can to navigate the world through her OCD, but struggles daily with creeping negative perceptions and fearful responses. As Olivia, Circosta turns on a dime, going from entertainingly impish to devastatingly cruel; both a protector and a naysayer on Emily’s shoulder, Olivia does whatever she needs to do in order to keep Emily safe and within the confines of her comfort zone—be it through manipulation, cajoling, tantrums or drama. Thing is, Emily wants to break out of that dynamic—leaving Olivia abandoned and unheeded. And that troubles Oliva a great deal.

Claxton gives an endearing performance as Emily’s friend/roommate Rowan—and has great chemistry with Shea Reed. A loving and supportive ally, Rowan rides the line between being protective and concerned, and letting Emily have her space as she ventures into new territory. It is Rowan who reminds Emily that OCD does not define her; and that she is so much more than a mental illness, and so loved. Ling gives Graham a compelling combination of affable charm and changeable loyalties; and, like Emily and Olivia, we’re not sure if we can trust Graham. Navigating his own mental health issues, Graham wants to be with Emily, but—despite his warm feelings and best intentions—needs to work out whether he can be okay with her challenging days and unorthodox needs. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to be as self-aware of his own mental health as Emily is of her own isn’t helping.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan gives us a candid and thoughtful look at the inner workings and lived experiences of someone living with OCD. We need more storytelling like this—to break down barriers and stereotypes, and foster awareness and understanding of those living with mental illness. And that an individual’s mental health issue, while part of who they are, does not define them; and they have something to contribute to their loved ones and society.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan continues in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre until January 25; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

New Ideas: The chaotic metaphysics of life, love & monsters in the water in the funny, moving, poetic Week 3 program

Alumnae Theatre Company continues its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works, opening the Week Three program last night. It’s the final week of the festival, running up in the Alumnae Studio.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Natalie Frijia, directed by Kay Brattan. In 1882 Toronto, 39 people have mysteriously drowned in Lake Ontario—and rumour has it there’s a monster beneath the slate blue water. Rookie reporter Marjorie May (Emma Tse) is determined to get the story, visiting Mary-Anne’s (Stella Kulagowski) pub down by the docks to gather some information. Things get real when they’re joined by the terrified Captain O’Connell (Shawn Lall), who’s barely escaped with his life. As the incoming storm batters the pub, there’s something else out there in the night. Is the creature coming after the Captain to finish what it started?

Nice work from the cast building the intrigue and tension in this 15-minute piece of exaggerated Toronto history. Tse brings a youthful sense of feisty defiance to the young reporter, while Kulagowski is fiery and cynical as the voluptuous barkeep; and Lall’s Captain runs the gamut from frozen terror to gritty resolve as the three stand together in the end.

Marty and Joel and the Edge of Chaos by Camille Intson, directed by Lorna Craig. Chaos theory meets romantic dramedy in this delightful and poignant two-hander played out by four actors. You’ll see what I mean. A couple—Marty (Allison Shea Reed/Kim Croscup), a physicist, and Joel (Simon Bennett/Ryan Bannon), a photographer—occupies the same space in two different times: the day they met and the day of Joel’s second marriage some 20 years later. Constructing and deconstructing the relationship, we see them go from first love to finally working toward some closure.

Beautifully acted and staged. Shea Reed and Bennett are adorably awkward as two 20-somethings getting to know, and falling for, each other. Marty and Joel seem to be perfect complements to each other, with Marty’s adventurous nature and nerdy science knowledge, and Joel’s creative, intuitive sensitivity. As older, more world-weary and disillusioned versions of their former selves, Croscup’s Marty is frustrated and angry, still looking for the answers; and Bannon’s Joel has moved on, but still cares deeply for Marty and treasures their relationship.

The Officiant by Francesca Brugnano, directed by Paige Foskett. It’s 1938, and Shirley (Brianna Riché) and William (Jordan Kenny) have stolen off into the woods, where Shirley has decorated a clearing for them to be secretly married. But when the Officiant (Lisa Kovack) arrives, the wedding service gives them a glimpse into their future together, making them think twice. Is it worth all the pain and suffering?

A lovely, poetic dance of text and movement to tell this story, with moving work from the cast. Riché is brave, romantic and practical as Shirley; and Kenny brings an earnest boyish charm to William. Kovack gives the Officiant a witch-like air of mystery and foresight; cruel to be kind, she means to get real with this couple.

Mourning after the Night Before by Chloë Whitehorn, directed by Heather Keith. When Lucy (Mary Wall) and Drew (Dave Martin) decided to move to a small town, they did it to make to make a quieter, more peaceful home for their family. Making friends with brother and sister Everett (Conor Ling) and Fenwick (Tiffany Deobald), locals who help them get settled, Lucy struggles with her relationship with her daughter Pippa (Grace Callahan), as well as emerging feelings for Everett. Everett is falling in love—but is it with Lucy or Pippa? Drew and Fenwick are trying to keep their respective families safe. Did Lucy miss something in Pippa’s dark, teen angst-filled poems?

Lovely work from the cast in this haunting, lyrical family drama. Wall is wounded and desperate as Lucy; heartbreaking in a life adrift and grasping for a sense of self. Martin’s Drew is heart-wrenching to watch; sensitive and supportive, Drew doesn’t know what to do—and finds himself drifting farther from his family. Callahan gives Pippa an ethereal, creative spirit; a somewhat wild and rebellious teen, she finds solace in writing. Ling brings a sweet, shy romantic edge to Everett; while seeing anew with these new relationships, Everett’s eyes may not be wide open. Deobald is an irreverent charmer as Fenwick; tasked with raising Everett after they were orphaned, Fen is just trying to keep it together, but shows genuine concern for the rift between her new friends Lucy and Drew.

The NIF Week Three program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

Coming up: Week Three staged reading on Saturday, March 24 at noon. Animal by Romeo Ciolfi, directed by Liz Best; featuring actors Alexandra Milne, Anton Wasowicz, Steven Vlahos and Michele Dodick.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Three trailer by Nicholas Porteous: