Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

a-better-place
Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.

Advertisements

Trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned – photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

If it can be done it will be done.

Static for a time, then appearing as if being typed by an unseen hand, there is a quasi-religious elegance to these words. God meets science.

This is how the stage is set for Tarragon Theatre’s world premiere of Fabrizio Filippo’s The Summoned, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Joel Bernbaum – currently running in the Mainspace.

Tech giant Khan (one name, like Cher, chosen himself) is dead and his executor has called an assembly of the important figures in his life for the reading of his will at a shitty airport hotel in Toronto, run by his former partner/ex Annie (Maggie Huculak) and her son Aldous (Fabrizio Filippo). The hotel was set up as a safe house for the world’s intellectual elite, and the guests are transported to the location with impressive precision and secrecy by Khan’s security chief Quentin (Tony Nappo). Company president Gary (John Bourgeois) and lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox), and flight attendant and Aldous’s sort of girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns) round out the guest list. Instructions are relayed to Quentin via Walkie Talkie (Alon Nashman).

Aldous also serves as our narrator, setting the scenes and introducing the players, and we learn about Khan via flashback scenes, where we see how a young Khan (Filippo) meets a young Annie (Cairns), and get glimpses into their work together and the genesis of his empire. It appears obvious to everyone except Aldous that Khan is his father. And, of course, the reading of the will is largely Khan’s way of messing with his dearly beloved from beyond the grave. And it all gets emotional and weird. Really weird.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Kelli Fox, Rachel Carins, John Bourgeois, Maggie Huculak, Tony Napppo & Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned

I effing love this cast. This is a wild, entertaining, high-energy ride – and this ensemble isn’t afraid to give ‘er. Playwright Filippo is a multitasking machine onstage, playing two very different characters. As Aldous, he brings an unflappable, almost eerie, sense of detachment and calm; minimally communicative and eschewing physical contact, there’s an Asperger’s quality to his relationship with the world. As Khan, he’s an impish, big personality; a mercurial and diabolically brilliant tech maestro with a lascivious appetite and flexible morals, he takes and uses what he wants, when and how he wants.

Huculak brings a lovely, layered sense of desperation and control to Annie; a brilliant, groundbreaking tech mind in her own right, her life forever changed by motherhood. Long estranged from Khan, she got the kid and he got the company, and she’s kept one foot in their once shared world by running the hotel safe house, perpetually longing for a connection with her son. Cairns is a kooky delight as Isla, the flight attendant who lives a seemingly charmed life; always living in the present, she is super spontaneous, hilariously irreverent and refreshingly honest. Nappo is a loveable combination of efficiency and wackiness as the cellphone snapping, air freshener spraying security guy Quentin; a schlub in a uniform, he also appears to be a narcoleptic, but this doesn’t stop him from executing his duties with tight-lipped, covert expertise. Bourgeois’ Gary is a great combo of funny and intimidating; an imposing corporate badass, Gary is entitled and cynical, and we see his soft underbelly emerge during the reading of the will. And Fox’s Laura is a gorgeous, ballsy 21st century Rosemary Clooney; pragmatic, but warm, she’s a sharp no-nonsense professional – and a woman with a confession to make.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Seated: John Bourgeois, Fabrizio Filippo & Maggie Huculak, with Kelli Fox on the floor

On the serious side, The Summoned is an exploration of the history and evolution of tech, and its applications and implications for our lives. If it can be done it will be done. Forever and ever, Amen.

With shouts to the design team, especially Jason Hand (lighting and set) and Kurt Firla (video) for the minimalist, multimedia environment; the playing space has a crisp, sleek quality to it – making you expect to see Steve Jobs walk out to launch a new iPhone. (Yes, I know, he’s dead.)

A trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned.

The Summoned continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until May 29; get your tix in advance, kids – this show is packing the house.

In the meantime, check out this Theatromania interview with playwright/actor Filippo.