Preview: Professional & personal responses to tragedy collide in the darkly funny, deeply human Vitals

Lauren Wolanski. Photo by John Wamsley.

 

After mounting a successful workshop reading of selections of Rosamund Small’s Vitals at Paprika Festival this year, Theatre Born Between (TBB) mounts the play in its entirety in its first full-scale production, directed by TBB co-founder Bryn Kennedy and running at The Commons Theatre. Darkly funny, deeply human and candid, Vitals is an up close look at the collision of a paramedic’s personal and professional responses to the serious, sometimes tragic, situations she’s called upon to attend.

Anna (Lauren Wolanski) is a Toronto paramedic—and a damn good one at that. A fierce, knowledgeable professional who suffers no fools and makes daily split-second life and death decisions, Anna has a strong sense of empathy and understanding for those she’s called upon to help. But her sharp, insightful sense of observation tells her when the tragedy in front of her is human-made—either through malice or negligence; and she has little patience or sympathy for the perpetrators. This goes for her colleagues, some of whom she has great respect for—like Afghanistan war vet Amir—focused, effective professionals she enjoys partnering with. Then there are the scattered, overly talkative, hero wanna-be types like Harry, who she despises. “People are terrible”—but helping people is her job.

Part anecdotal, part confessional, Anna takes us through a series of calls—the aftermath of which varies, depending on the situation. Gore doesn’t faze her, but rape and cruelty are hard to take. And sometimes, for reasons beyond their control, the ambulance just can’t get there fast enough; and she tries to swallow those situations as best she can. Experiencing the best and worst of people as she arrives in their lives during moments of extreme stress, vulnerability and tragedy—the clock ticking and every second counting—some calls get too close and stick. Some calls haunt and tear at her soul; triggering profound, life-changing responses to extreme situations.

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Lauren Wolanski. Photo by John Wamsley.

Wolanski is a brilliant storyteller; complementing the taut, razor-sharp observations of the script, hilarious gallows humour, and engaging, theatrical staging with a sharply rendered performance that weaves in and out of each 911 story with profound candour, intelligence and vulnerability. Rounding out the feisty, hard-ass side of Anna with an abiding sense of empathy and compassion, Wolanski takes us right along this ride with Anna’s deep, personal sense of commitment to the job and her raw personal reactions to the horrific, human mess of it all.

Vitals opens tonight and continues at The Commons (587A College St., Toronto—just east of Clinton) until November 25. Get advance tickets online or purchase at the door (cash only); PWYC/discounted advance tickets on November 21. It’s an intimate space, so advance booking or early arrival are recommended.

Audience warning: This production includes mentions of sexual assault, detailed descriptions of violence and suicide, and strong language. Suitable for audience members 14+. 

 

 

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Struggling with life’s complexities in the quirky, hilarious, poignant George F. Walker double bill: Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor

Left: Catherine Fitch in Her Inside Life. Right: Craig Henderson & Anne van Leeuwen in Kill the Poor. Photos by John Gundy.

 

Leroy Street Theatre and Low Rise Productions join forces, with the assistance of Storefront Theatre, to present a world premiere double bill of two George F. Walker plays: Her Inside Life, directed by Andrea Wasserman, and Kill the Poor, directed by Wes Berger—completing The Parkdale Palace Trilogy after a successful run of Chance last Fall. Featuring sharply drawn characters living on the fringes of urban society, it’s classic Walker; a brilliant, quirky, hilarious and poignant look at life’s “losers” as they struggle with unique and complex problems. The compelling and entertaining double bill opened last night at The Assembly Theatre.

Her Inside Life (directed by Andrea Wasserman). A woman convicted of murder, under house arrest due to mental incapacity, discovers that the second man she thought she’d killed is still alive.

Former English literature teacher Violet (Catherine Fitch) is under house arrest for the murder of her husband Keith, who she believes was a serial killer. Found to be mentally incapacitated, she’s under the mandatory supervision of social worker Cathy (Sarah Murphy-Dyson); and the two are engaged in an ongoing battle of wills over Violet’s medication and erratic behaviour. Violet’s previously absent daughter Maddy (Lesley Robertson) arrives on the scene, wanting to help but struggling with her own demons. Violet longs to see her two grandkids—and Cathy and Maddy team up in an attempt to make that happen.

When Violet learns that the second man she thought she’d killed-her brother-in-law Leo (Tony Munch)-is alive and recently out of prison, her drive for exoneration and acceptance of her story is renewed. She believes that Leo was an accessory to Keith’s murders; and she’s convinced that her mother-in-law’s diaries have evidence to prove her theory. Trouble is, they’re written in Lithuanian. As Maddy and Violet attempt to translate the diaries, Cathy discovers Violet’s unorthodox means of getting information from Leo. And that’s when things get really crazy.

Fitch is a treat as the quirky, funny and highly intelligent Violet; impishly mischievous and charming, Violet is a tricky customer who knows how to play the system-and what she lacks in tact, she makes up for in chutzpah. Longing for some independence and dignity, and desperate to be believed, she fights the odds to be heard. Murphy-Dyson is a perfect foil as Cathy; put-upon, yet friendly, patient and professional, Cathy truly cares for and wants to help Violet—but she’s nobody’s fool and won’t take any bullshit. Robertson is both goofy and heartbreaking as Maddy; having been through the wars emotionally herself, Maddy is a struggling alcoholic with an asshole for a husband. She wants to help, but could use a hand herself. Munch’s Leo is a complex combination of low-level thug and hurt little boy; a reminder that bullies are what they are for a reason, there’s a soft, gooey centre under that hard shell.

Kill the Poor (directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Breanna Dillon and Marisa McIntyre). A young couple recovering from a tragic car accident are assisted by their building’s handyman, a disbarred lawyer who bites off more than he can chew with his plan to get justice.

As Lacey (Anne van Leeuwen) arrives home to continue recovering from a tragic car accident that took her brother Tim’s life, she and husband Jake (Craig Henderson) must now also figure out how they’re going to organize and pay for Tim’s funeral. When their building handyman Harry (Ron Lea) learns of their predicament, he offers to help; a disbarred, former crooked lawyer, he hatches a plan to create a witness in Lacey’s favour.

Meanwhile, police detective Annie (Chandra Galasso) wants some answers about what happened the night of the accident, but Lacey can’t even remember who was driving her car, let alone which driver ran the red light. The other driver, Mr. David (Al Bernstein), who came away relatively unscathed in his Escalade, shows up with a large cheque , claiming it’s to cover the cost of Lacey’s totalled car. And when Harry’s plan is tweaked to target Mr. David, the gang finds they’ve bitten off more than they can chew when they find out about his ties to organized crime. Then, things get really tense.

There’s great chemistry between van Leeuwen’s street-smart, grown-up Lacey and Henderson’s dim-witted, child-like, loyal Jake. Looking after her mom, keeping Jake on the straight and narrow, and now having to plan her brother’s funeral—all while still recovering from her injuries—Lacey finds reserves of strength even she didn’t know she had. Lea is a laugh riot as the eccentric, energetic Harry; shifting from waxing philosophical, to hilarious bursts of outrage, to devious scheming, Harry is fighting for redemption from a checkered past. Galasso’s Annie brings the edge and skepticism of a seasoned cop, softened by a strong sense of compassion; while Annie can be a suspicious hard-ass, the harshness of the job hasn’t dulled her drive to serve and protect. And Bernstein’s Mr. David is a compelling collage of menacing presence, dark comic wise guy and empathetic listener. David feels for Lacey’s situation, but won’t have his reputation and livelihood put in jeopardy by attracting unwanted attention in a possible vehicular manslaughter trial.

 

Once again, Walker reminds us that there’s so much more to people than meets the eye—including those we would write off due to socioeconomic status, chosen profession, or mental or intellectual capacity. In the end, we’re all just trying the best we can to make it through the day with some dignity and security—and some days are freakier than others.

Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor continue at The Assembly Theatre until November 18; both shows run every night, with alternating curtain times of 7pm and 9pm. Get advance tickets online or purchase at the door; it’s an intimate venue and a strong production, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Looking beyond mental illness to see the person in the intense, affecting The Valley

Photo by Keagan Heathers. Graphic design by Ali Carroll.

 

Don’t Look Down Theatre Company, in support of CAMH, presents an intense, affecting production of Joan McLeod’s The Valley, directed by co-Artistic Director Ryan James and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace. Inspired by the shocking 2007 tasering death of Robert Dziekanski during his arrest at the Vancouver airport, The Valley looks at the experience of mental health issues; and the assumptions about and reactions to someone living with mental illness, from the perspective of loved ones and law enforcement.

Eighteen-year-old Connor (Daniel Entz) is an intelligent, engaged, aspiring sci-fi writer—that is, until he goes off to Calgary to university. When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational suspicion of his dorm roommate. And now, a young man who was previously excited to go off to university is insisting that he can’t go back. A divorced single mom, Sharon is navigating her own troubles—and her desperate attempts to help and cheer her son only serve to agitate him more, resulting in an increased level of stress and worry for her.

Meanwhile, Vancouver cop Dan (Cedric Martin) is becoming more and more cynical about and dissatisfied with his job. Faced with an ongoing array of people with serious substance and behaviour issues, he finds it hard to feel that his work makes a difference. Feeling the pressures of being a new father, as well as looking after his emotionally fragile wife Janie (Alexa Higgins), a recovering addict, he sucks it all up and carries on, finding refuge in his bicycle. Janie is struggling with post-partum depression and sleep deprivation; and is deeply troubled that she can’t seem to connect with their infant son Zeke. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Dan to understand what she’s going through—and she’s feeling increasingly at her wit’s end.

The worlds of these two intimate family units collide when Connor experiences a psychotic break on public transit and Dan arrives on the scene. Scared and confused, and brandishing what appears to be a weapon—in actual fact, a rolled up bunch of fliers, which he drops at Dan’s command—Connor becomes even more agitated, lashing out while Dan attempts to cuff him, hands behind his back. Dan’s use of force to restrain him escalates, resulting in Connor sustaining a broken jaw. Outraged, Sharon files a complaint and tries to get Dan to see who Connor really is—a talented, intelligent young man and not just a mental illness. When that fails, she suggests a resolution-oriented approach: a healing circle that includes Dan, Janie, Connor and herself. Janie is all for it, but Dan is having none of it.

Lovely, focused work from this cast on the sensitive, timely subject of mental illness. Entz gives us a deep dive into Connor’s tormented psyche, surfacing with a physically and emotionally present performance. We can see Connor’s tightly wound, tortured soul torn between withdrawing in fear from the world, and reaching out for help and connection. Fairbairn gives a heart-wrenching performance as Sharon; dealing with her own emotional upheaval, Sharon’s profound desire to do the best she can for her son comes out in bursts of unsolicited advice and talkative cheerleading, pushing her son further into his own world and making her feel even more helpless.

Martin’s multidimensional performance goes a long way toward making us feel empathy for Dan. Dan is trying his best to be a good cop and a supportive husband, but lack of awareness and misconceptions about mental health and mental illness get in his way—as do his own personal demons, particularly an increasingly dark view of his career in law enforcement. Higgins gives a touching, layered performances as Janie, bringing a sweetness and optimism, as well as a strength that underlies Janie’s vulnerability. Faking it till she makes it only gets Janie so far, and she soon comes face to face with her own troubled past.

Good people with the best of intentions can fall short in their drive to be effective and helpful allies for those living with mental illness. How do we increase awareness—for both the public and law enforcement—and bring the focus onto the people behind the illness, who are struggling and need support? The Valley puts a face on mental illness, reminding us that we’re all grappling with internal conflict. And that compassion, understanding and empathy go a long way to providing healthy, helpful support and making meaningful connections.

With shouts to stage manager/lighting designer Chin Palipane for the cool, atmospheric lighting effects.

The Valley continues in the TPM Backspace until September 23; 7:30 p.m. curtain for evening performances and 2:00 p.m. weekend matinees (Please note: Sun, Sept 16 matinee has been moved to 7:30 p.m.). Book advance tickets online or by calling 416-504-7529.

You can also keep up with Don’t Look Down Theatre Company on Twitter. In the meantime, check out the trailer: