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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: Unapologetically Raw - The Thrill

Directed by Dean Gabourie, Designed by Eo Sharp

The story: Wheelchair-bound since birth, Human Rights lawyer Elora is furious when her alma mater invites "the devil" to speak at an event - Julian, a man who advocates a parent's right to choose to terminate the life of a child who is diagnosed with catastrophic illness. Her care-giver Francis insists she calm down, but in protest Elora nearly runs him over in her motorized chair during his speech, and is astounded when he arrives on her doorstep with an apology. More astounding is that not only is he instantly besotted with her, she also finds herself attracted to him, and together they form a plan to help get "her people" out of institutions and into their own homes to lead lives as rich as hers. However, Elora's body is beginning to deteriorate around her, and Julian is facing a similar crisis in the breakdown of his mother's mental acuity. Faced with two sides of an emotionally-charged issue, each one must make the hardest decisions of their lives.

The Thrill is a new play by multiple-award-winning Judith Thompson, arguably Canada's greatest living playwright, commissioned by the Stratford Festival. In her program notes, Ms. Thompson reveals that the character of Elora is based on a real person, Harriet McBryde Johnson, inspired by an article the lawyer had written for the New York Times Magazine called Unspeakable Conversations.  That is the crux of the play, exploring a set of related issues that every last one of us in Ontario under the AODA is likely to face at one point in our lives or another, whether dealing with an aging parent, a disabled relative, a patient, or a customer we serve. To take extraordinary measures or not? To institutionalize or not to institutionalize? To euthanize or not to euthanize? Those are some of the questions.

Now, Ms. Thompson makes no apologies for creating a piece of theatre that brings such questions into the harsh light of day, but neither are these questions answered. In fact it is a (very nearly tragic) irony that the two protagonists become convinced of the others' point of view, leaving the audience full of questions, debates and perhaps an uncomfortable glimpse of what is coming in our own lives. This, I would argue, is her point. One thing The Thrill will do is give audience members absolutely no excuse to ever make judgements again about what anyone with a disability can or cannot do, in or out of a wheelchair. Because anyone who is able-bodied truly does not know. One may have an inkling after seeing The Thrill, but that is all.  
Lucy Peacock as Elora and Nigel Bennett as Julian.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Lucy Peacock deserves a medal for her performance as Elora. For two and a half hours she hunches herself into a motorized chair that gives her lower body an atrophied appearance, with arms and hands that sometimes work and are sometimes "dead birds". For an able-bodied actress, this is an incredibly physical task; knowing Ms. Peacock is able-bodied brings new poignancy to Elora's words that anyone can become disabled, though birth or by accident. An actress who continually challenges herself with such roles (remember The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead?), Ms Peacock imbues Elora with a feistiness and dignity without the bitterness or saccharine of a Hallmark television special, and yet shows Elora's vulnerability exceptionally well, especially in her scenes with Robert Persichini as Francis, her care-giver. (We can forgive the occasional lapse out of a Southern accent - that is not what the play is about.)

Mr. Persichini allows Francis to be the play's chorus for the most part - Elora's sounding board, someone who knows her better than she knows herself, and as Mr. Persichini plays him, the audience instinctively trusts what he has to say. Mr. Persichini does convey some of a care-givers weariness, but the way the role is written and the way he is played, Francis is the best kind of care companion - not only compassionate and kind, but someone who wants the best for Elora's emotional well-being too - she is his family. And unlike Elora and Julian, he never waivers in his decisions.  

The Irish author Julian is played by Nigel Bennett who does so with a consistent sense of wonder and almost innocence, despite having two ailing women in his life. Julian is sort of bemused that his book about the suffering of his youngest sister has garnered him world-renown and a seat at McGill University; he is smitten with Elora and never questions his feelings for her, but he is ultimately no match for her resolve and resilience. His biggest dilemma is in the form of his ageing mother Hannah - played by Patricia Collins - who is physically able but whose mind is slowly unhinging. One scene has him forcing her out of bed and into a dress to get her outside - the of the encounter leaves both of them feeling ashamed and violated, and it is to the credit of both Mr. Bennett and Ms. Collins (and John Stead, the stunt coordinator) that this powerful scene becomes neither violent nor apologetic. As Hannah Ms. Collins is both sharp and sweet,  and can revel in some of the best deadpan-delivered comic bits of the play.

"Enjoyed" is not how I would describe my experience in seeing The Thrill. It is a play about complex characters in difficult circumstances that is impeccably performed, just be prepared to discuss it - at length - afterward.

The Thrill continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 22 - and FYI, it is nearly sold out.

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