NSTF: Love, grief & celebrating life in the deeply moving, resonant musical Every Silver Lining

Allison Wither & Laura Piccinin. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Silver Lining Productions brings its Toronto Fringe 2019 breakout musical theatre hit Every Silver Lining to the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither, and directed by Jennifer Stewart, with music direction by Aaron Eyre, Every Silver Lining takes us on a journey of love, friendship, grief and a celebration of life as a family and a group of high school students navigate the loss of a son, brother and friend to cancer. The songs are both profoundly insightful, revealing and catchy—resonating deep in the heart—performed with impressive vocal chops and great sensitivity.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew (Daniel Karp) has leukemia and is looking forward to his last round of chemo. Hiding his illness from even his closest friends, he just wants to get back to school, hang out with his friends and live as normal a life as possible. He and his teen sister Clara (Allison Wither) are good buds, but since his diagnosis, she’s been feeling invisible at home, drowning in the extreme life-changing routine and tension-filled atmosphere; and even having to put some of her own life on hold while she drives Andrew to appointments and keeps him company during chemo sessions. Their mother Judy (Alison J Palmer) is fearful and hovering, and getting on Andrew’s nerves; and dad Kevin (Luke Marty) is caught in the middle, acting as peacemaker between his wife and son while the family lives with the stress and uncertainty of Andrew’s prognosis.

At school, Clara’s BFF Emily (Laura Piccinin) gently prods and advises her on how to get to know the cute new guy Ben (Alex Furber). Clara’s not sure she’s up for it, but finds herself drawn to Ben; and Andrew is happy to be back with his gamer friends Jeremy (Joel Cumber), Bev (Jada Rifkin) and Sam (Ben Skipper). This period of apparent normalcy is short-lived as Andrew comes down with a critical infection, and his chances for further treatment are gone.

Andrew’s friends are stunned to learn of his death—especially as they hadn’t known he was ill—and find themselves facing the death of a loved one their own age for the first time. They’re well-supported by their arts and science teacher Ms. Vella (Starr Domingue), who gives them space to share their thoughts and feelings. Dealing with so many feelings—about Andrew, dealing with school work and tests, blossoming feelings of attraction—and experiencing the various stages of grief is painful and confusing. But, ultimately, the friends pull together to support each other, remember Andrew and celebrate his life.

Delivered with heart and impressive vocal chops—and nicely supported by musicians Aaron Eyre (piano), Erika Nielsen (cello) and Alex Panneton (percussion)—the cast takes us from laughter to tears; performing beautifully composed songs featuring moving and catchy melodies, resonant counter melodies, and soaring harmonies. Karp gives the outgoing Daniel a combination of brave face and resilient resistance; struggling, even fighting, for normalcy when his life has been turned upside down in the face of an unknown outcome. Wither’s performance as the introverted, irreverent Clara is a nuanced portrait of a teen working through complex, challenging times; the sometimes tough, give no fucks exterior belies her inner conflict and fear of losing her brother. She loves her brother, but she hates what the disease is doing to him and their family; and feels guilty for doing so. Palmer and Marty’s grounded, present performances as parents Judy and Kevin run the gamut from hope to despair; Palmer’s loving helicopter mom and Marty’s supportive middleman dad are doing the best they can while facing the unthinkable loss of a child.

Furber gives an adorkably lovable performance as the cute, somewhat nerdy Ben; there are some lovely moments with Wither as Ben and Clara get to know each other and explore their growing attraction. Piccinin and Cumber add some great, and much needed, comic relief as the effervescent extrovert Emily and the goofy, fun-loving Jeremy. Piccinin gives Emily a warm, protective, enveloping hug vibe, while Cumber’s Jeremy is more sensitive than at first glance, using gentle humour to support his friends through their grief. Rifkin gives a poignant performance as the socially awkward Bev; and Skipper does a nice job revealing Sam’s anger about Andrew’s death, and toward Andrew himself, as Sam deals with his grief. Domingue is lovely, engaging and supportive as Ms. Vella; and makes for an understanding, approachable oncologist.

Profoundly poignant and inspiring—and full of spirit, hope and love—in the end, Every Silver Lining is about recognizing and being open to the love and support of family and friends during times of fear, loss and grief; and sharing, remembering and celebrating the life of the departed loved one as part of the acknowledgment of, and working through, the stages of the mourning process.

Every Silver Lining continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase.

Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

A journey into the wasteland of a serial killer’s mind & the possibility of forgiveness in Seven Siblings’ chilling, heartbreaking Frozen

Scott McCulloch, Nancy McAlear & Madryn McCabe. 

 

Is it possible to forgive a man who has murdered a child? The stuff of every parent’s nightmare becomes an opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness as a forensic psychologist offers her thesis on the minds serial killers in Seven Siblings Theatre’s compelling, moving production of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. Directed by Will King, Frozen opened last night at the b current Studio Theatre at Artscape Wychwood Barns.

American forensic psychologist Agnetha (Madryn McCabe)—who has a fear of flying and some emotional turmoil of her own to deal with—is on her way to London, England to give a lecture on her thesis and interview a new subject: serial killer Ralph (Scott McCulloch). We also meet Nancy (Nancy McAlear), a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona went missing on her way to her grandmother’s over 20 years ago.

Shifting into the past and returning to the present, we learn the details of Rhona’s disappearance. Nancy’s sullen teenage daughter Ingrid refuses to go to her grandmother’s, as it involves gardening work, so Nancy sends Rhona instead. Ralph sees an opportunity and takes it. As these flashbacks include both Nancy and Ralph’s points of view, we get devastating and alarming accounts of the events that led to the loss of this loved girl.

Agnetha, along with neuroscientist colleague David (voice-over by Jim Armstrong), has collected evidence that suggests abuse, neglect and brain trauma permanently alter the brain structures of serial killers, rendering them unable to control their actions. And, as these people—mostly men—are ill, and not evil monsters, can we not therefore forgive them?

In the early years following Rhona’s disappearance, Nancy throws herself into activism work with an organization dedicated to finding missing children and reuniting them with their families. Living in hope and denial, she believes in her heart that Rhona is still alive. Her hopes are dashed when she learns that police have taken Ralph into custody for the attempted abduction of a girl; his tattoos betray his whereabouts on the dates and locations of other missing girls. Rhona’s remains are found, along with those of other victims and his collection of child porn videos, in his shed—in Nancy’s neighbourhood, close to home. Bringing Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph together, the tragedy of Rhona’s abduction and murder becomes a catalyst for personal journey and self-discovery—with unexpected and startling results.

Cerebral, visceral and spiritual, it’s a challenging piece for the ensemble, to say the least—and this cast rises to the occasion with layered, nuanced and compelling performances. McCabe is strikingly professional, deeply vulnerable and tender as Agnetha. Struggling to keep it together as she continues the work that she and David started, Agnetha must keep her own internal conflicts under control as she interviews Ralph and assesses whether it’s wise to allow Nancy to visit him. McAlear is a heartbreaking, determined warrior mother as Nancy. The glue that keeps her family together, Nancy must not only come to terms with the fact that Rhona isn’t coming back, but accept the long-term impacts on her family as each member grows up and even apart from her. And as something shifts in her own heart and mind, what will she say when she sees Ralph? McCulloch is both chilling and gruffly charming as Ralph; a master manipulator and liar, Ralph is disturbingly nonchalant about his proclivities and hunting habits. Forced to turn inward during his meetings with Agnetha, who’s told him that he can’t help himself due to his traumatic childhood and brain injury, what will he find?

Frozen in time, with only her bones left behind, Rhona reaches out to each of these characters. Can Agnetha and Nancy move on from their devastating losses? Frozen in a mind that dictates deviant desires and behaviour, can Ralph understand the hurtful impact of, and feel remorse for, what he’s done? Can we distinguish evil from illness—and what will we do with that understanding?

Heartbreaking, chilling and peppered with dark humour—and provocative in Agnetha’s thesis of the possibility of forgiveness for a serial killer—Frozen is an emotionally and intellectually turbulent ride. Staged with minimal set pieces—cubes that are stacked and moved with precision to create the space—with live sound by director King, Seven Siblings’ Frozen is both uncomfortable and revealing in its intimacy. Try as we may, we can’t look away.

Frozen continues in the b current Studio Theatre until June 3; advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue.