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

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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.

Sex, magic, intrigue & spies in New Ideas Week One program

NIF2014-banner-1024x725A new year and another edition of Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival of original, short plays.

Caught the Week One program last night. Sex, magic, intrigue and spies figured prominently in this week’s roster of plays – here’s what was on the menu:

Be Careful, There’s a Baby in the House, by Nicholas Sgouros and directed by Seane M. Speake, is a sharp, fun commentary on modern family life. What starts out as a pre-planned – and secret – night of passion becomes something else entirely. Sex After Kids meets The Honest Toddler. Nice work from actors Andre de Carvalho, Caroline Concordia and Sara Jackson.

Elsa and Marigold, by Marissa Spada and directed by Janet Kish, is the story of two hormone-driven, romantic-minded and curious teen girls whose attempt at creating the perfect man takes an unexpected turn, all under the cloaked and watchful eye of their Headmistress. Meagan Tuck and Julie Cohn do a nice job of capturing the energy of the young women, and Arianna Leask is both sexy and mysterious as their crop-wielding Headmistress.

I’m Still Here, by Ramona Baillie and directed by Dahlia Katz, brings more sexy intrigue when an aging movie starlet, anxious to not disappear from the public eye, surprises an ambitious young journalist looking to make a name for himself with a hot story. Great work from Susan Q. Wilson as the still fetching movie star Dahlia Day, and Adam Cresswell as the driven, cynical journalist Tyler Watts. And Razie Brownstone is a delight as Dahlia’s impish housekeeper Maria. We need to have more plays where we hear Brownstone say: “X-rated photos!”

In a Time of War, by Anne MacMillan and directed by Brett Haynes, is a tale of adventure and intrigue, set against the backdrop of WWII Scotland, as two imaginative young girls make a discovery after a bombing raid. This is also a story of family, friendship, and keeping a stalwart heart in the face of fear and loss. Will be interested to see where this one goes – great possibilities for a full-length play. Shouts to Jordi O’Dael and Annelise Hawrylak for their very convincing portrayal of the energetic girls Elspeth and Pat, and to Kit Boulter (Elspeth’s mother Rose), Reese Presley (Elspeth’s father Will), Morna Wales (Grandma Tess) and Franz Robinow (Grandpa Mungo) for their engaging and entertaining performances as the grown-ups.

The Week One reading – Norma Crawford’s Royal Seasons, directed by Nina Kay – has its performance today (Mar 15) at noon.

All happening up in the Alumnae Theatre studio, the New Ideas Festival Week One program runs until tomorrow (Mar 16) – to be followed by the Week Two (Mar 19-23) and Week Three (Mar 26-30) programs and readings. Reservations are strongly recommended as this is a popular festival.

Call 416-364-4170 or visit the Tickets page on the Alumnae website.