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.