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.

Dragged kicking & screaming by desire – JR Theatre’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow

Dreamer_poster_WEBThis was my first time seeing John Patrick Shanley’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow – this production directed by Eva Barrie for JR Theatre Company – and I wasn’t familiar with the play at all. Written around the same time as Shanley’s Savage in Limbo, Dreamer touches on some similar themes: love, desire, life – and the crazy-making nature of it all.

When I step inside the theatre at The Box Theatre, located in an old warehouse on Niagara Street, the first thing that strikes me is the pre-show soundtrack. Surreal, dream-like spoken word – sometimes barely distinguishable – accompanied by a percussion-driven back beat. Then, the space itself. The 45-some seats are set up in four rows along the length of the playing space, two on each side. This will be an up-close and intimate experience. The painting that hangs at one end of the sparsely furnished space – child-like and linear, an orange face on a grey background – reminds me of Denise Savage’s dream monologue in Savage in Limbo, during which she’s peeled away her face like it was tissue, leaving a piece of “flat grey cardboard where (her) face had been.” We later learn that this is a self-portrait of Tommy. The whitewashed brick walls of the playing area are curtained floor to ceiling with plastic, bringing to mind an artist’s studio. Or a serial killer’s lair.

Dreamer thrums in the space between visceral and cerebral, primal and evolved, profane and divine – and the storytelling style shifts between real and surreal, art and life, dreaming and waking. And the cast of Yehuda Fisher (Tommy, also co-producer with Rifkin), Scott McCulloch (Dad) and Jada Rifkin (Donna) are up for the challenge.

Performing with guts, passion and the drive of philosophers seeking the answer to the mystery of the universe, the actors dive into the dynamics of boyfriend/girlfriend, father/daughter and father/daughter’s boyfriend with courage and honesty. The play is broken into a series of mostly two-handers, each character struggling with messy but vital relationships, and with his/her own sense of identity. The father/daughter scene is particularly moving and revealing, bringing us to the core of the play. Men and women, and the primal drive to connect, to create – and how we are all changed in the process, our former selves torn apart and transformed into something new. We are drawn into love by an unstoppable desire that drags us kicking and screaming – and, to a large extent, with our consent.

I was very happy to have seen this show on Valentine’s Day, which also happened to be the Friday before the Family Day long weekend. It reminded me of how much relationships can play on a razor’s edge, so fragile and complex and fierce at the same time – and the brutal honesty and nurturing that love requires.

You have two more chances to see JR Theatre’s production of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow: tonight (Sat, Feb 15) at 8 p.m. and tomorrow (Sun, Feb 16) at 2 p.m. Tonight may be sold out, so best to book ahead in order to avoid disappointment.