Assumptions, uncertainty & paranoia in powerful, eye-opening Refuge

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Andrea Davis in Refuge – photos by John Lauener

There’s a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking piece of socio-political theatre running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace right now: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, directed by Kelly Thornton. The play was inspired in part by the award-winning CBC Radio documentary Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk, as well as Vingoe’s personal experiences tutoring a woman from Ethiopia and hosting a Chinese student in her home. Refuge is presented in association with Amnesty International.

Community immigrant support group member Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) tutors East African refugee Amleset Zerisenai (Andrea Davis) in English, and learns that Amleset’s son Ayinom, an army deserter, has been detained for arriving in the country without papers. She enlists the aid of immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg), who eventually convinces her to take Ayinom in – much to the dismay of her husband Allan (Ryan Hollyman). With the assistance of interpreter Mebrahtu (Raïs Muoi), Ayinom gains a friend and a job. Shifting between past and present, Pamela, Saul and Mebrahtu are interviewed by a CBC interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) about Ayinom’s story.

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Mary Francis Moore & Raïs Muoi in Refuge

We never see Ayinom – but his presence is felt strongly throughout. We never get a full picture of this young man, perceived as mysterious in that relatively little is known about him. Without documentation, authorities and allies must rely on first- and second-hand accounts of his status and character – an uncertain situation that provokes more questions than answers, as well as paranoia in a post-911 world. Exacerbating this is Pamela and Saul’s personal and legal history with the Air India bombing disaster, where Pamela lost her grandparents. Ayinom’s anxious mother describes him as a “good boy,” but we also learn from Mebrahtu that he was an uneducated young man, drafted into the army and handed a gun, and there are conflicting accounts of his rank and activities. And Ayinom’s quiet, unassuming personality gives them pause as well: is it due to the shock of the horrors of war and the long, terrible journey to get away – or is he up to something?

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Jason Weinberg in Refuge

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, tension-filled piece. Stand-outs include Sinha, who brings an understated nuance to Pamela Ross’s inner conflict. Her head is at odds with her heart; and despite a reluctance to take Ayinom in, she wants to help Amleset and chooses to take a leap of faith and host him in her home – an undertaking that becomes even more challenging in the face of her husband’s growing paranoia and a complicated relationship with Saul. Weinberg’s Saul is a great combination of gruff charm and pragmatism on the outside with a warm-hearted centre that roots for the underdog. Beneath the bad jokes and sharp, realist attitude, he genuinely cares; like Pamela, Saul isn’t doing this so much for Ayinom as for someone he knows and cares about, and even though they have their doubts, they both want to believe in the good in this young man. Muoi is an informative delight as Mebrahtu; energetic, talkative and affable, he lays out the facts of the brutal situation in East Africa in a matter-of-fact, but never clinical, way. He doesn’t know Ayinom well, and they became close friends, but even he only knows what he’s been told and what he translates from Ayinom’s diary. And we get the sense that even he’s not sure what Ayinom is about.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Refuge is the physical absence of a key character. Ayinom is lacking (a word Pamela is teaching Amleset) in the action, but his presence is felt nevertheless. He is cared about, theorized about, talked about. But we never hear directly from him. We gather from others that he is a beloved son, a social cause, a refugee claimant under suspicion, a friend. He is determined, hard-working and well-liked, but quiet, solitary and uncommunicative. He has survived the bloodshed of war, travelled thousands of miles, enduring unknown and unspeakable horrors along the way. Ayinom is a young man seeking a better life, going through hell to get out of a horrific situation in his home country only to be put through a fresh kind of hell in the new country he longs to call home.

With shouts to set/costume designer Laura Gardner for the striking set design, with its cold whites and greys, footprints in the snow, and highly effective screen projections on fabric ‘walls’: the beautiful, eerie tree silhouettes and raging sea.

Assumptions, uncertainty and paranoia in the powerful, eye-opening Refuge.

Refuge continues at the Tarragon Extraspace until May 8; you can purchase advance tix online.

Check out the trailer:

 

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Deeply moving, interwoven look at the faces of loss & coping in Piece by Piece

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Mary Francis Moore & Virgilia Griffith in Piece by Piece

The loss of a loved one – to death, cognitive illness or break-up – is hard on everyone, especially on those who are left behind.

The McGuffin Company explores loss and coping in Alison Lawrence’s Piece by Piece, directed by David Ferry and running at the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

The play is anchored by Steffi (Virgilia Griffith), a teen who has recently lost her mother to illness and her grief-stricken father Bert (Brian Young) to alcohol. Finding herself unable to return to school, Steffi returns daily to the ICU where her mother died – and this is where the interwoven stories of the play converge: Frank (Terrence Bryant), a professor who’s lost his mind to Alzheimer’s, and his wife Barb (Linda Goranson), who’s at her wit’s end looking after her changed husband; and geriatric specialist John (John Cleland), on Frank’s health care team, who’s dealing with a loss of his own – his wife Jessie’s (Mary Francis Moore) multiple miscarriages and behavioural changes, and the subsequent distance between them.

The ensemble does a remarkable job navigating the complex character relationships and responses as the stages of grief play out in various scenarios – with simmering rage, biting anger, dark humour and inconsolable tears – and revelations for each other and for themselves emerge.

Griffith is outstanding as Steffi, a smart-ass kid who’s wise beyond her years, her tough guy exterior masking the heartbroken child beneath – and her frank, often irreverent and humourous, monologues carry the audience through the process from her point of view and add context to the scenes that follow. Young does a nice job as her pathetically self-involved father Bert, who you can’t help but feel bad for as he stumbles around within his grief, even as he ignores his daughter while finding solace at the bottom of a tall boy. Bryant brings a lovely fragile quality to Frank, a once highly articulate and intelligent man whose mind has lost its way; and Goranson captures the complex layers of an exhausted wife struggling with her own frustration and pain as she tries to cope with his deteriorating condition – losing a beloved husband of 47 years before her eyes while he’s still alive. No doormat, Barb has chutzpah, but must come to the realization that she can’t function alone in this. Moore is edgy, raw and heartbreaking as Jessie, who distracts herself with the tragedies of others to avoid living in her own; and Cleland’s John is nicely understated as her supportive and struggling husband, spending as much time and energy trying to get Jessie to confront her mental health issues as he does on quashing his own anger and sense of futility.

Beyond the personal experience of coping with the loss of a loved one, Piece by Piece is about how those who are left behind lose themselves in the process – bit by bit, they change and nothing will ever be the same. It’s about finding support and community in order to move on. Each feels alone in his/her pain, but they can’t – and must not – get through it alone.

Piece by Piece is a deeply moving, interwoven look at the many faces of loss and coping.

Piece by Piece runs until Sun, Jan 18 – you can book tix ahead online.