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The Boy in the Moon: gazing at him

by | May 8, 2021 | Review | 1 comment

Publicity photo for The Boy in the Moom

Ian (Marcus Youssef) with a photo of Walker. (Photo by Mark Halliday, Moonrider Productions)

Theatre for grown-ups. I’m grateful.

This version of The Boy in the Moon is playwright Emil Sher’s adaptation of Ian Brown’s memoir about raising Walker, his severely disabled son, with his wife Johanna Schneller.

It’s tough. Describing Walker at birth, the character Ian says, “His body doesn’t want to live.” Walker is eventually diagnosed with Cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), a rare genetic disorder that leaves him unable to speak or to toilet or feed himself. When he gets a little older, Walker starts to hit himself so hard that his body is black and blue.

The great strength of The Boy in the Moon is that it is relentlessly clear-eyed, not sentimental or magical in the manner of so many popular entertainments about milder forms of disability. Both parents love Walker tenaciously and endure endless sleepless nights and marriage-corroding stress to care for him. In the play’s opening, Ian’s description of tube-feeding Walker and changing his diaper is enough to banish any expectations of romanticism.

The fundamental tension in the play is between love and survival, love and the capacity to go on. “I began to ask myself if it wouldn’t be braver to kill myself,” Ian says, “and take him with me.”

There is also brightness, much of it involving Walker’s big sister Hayley. Walker delights in her dancing. In one of the most moving passages in the script, Hayley challenges the underpinning of her dad’s book and, by implication, the play. She doesn’t want her father or anybody else to presume to speak for her brother. “No one can speak for Walker,” she says. In this production, actor Synthia Yusuf delivers that simple line with such protectiveness she left me with the sense that Hayley may be the one who sees Walker most clearly.

There’s a philosophical inquiry going on as well — about what we owe one another and about the nature of being human. Talking about Walker early on, Ian says, “You see the face of the man in the moon but you know there’s no man there.” Ian repeatedly questions his son’s subjectivity, his humanity, even as he describes the tenderness of some of their interactions. I was left wondering what purpose his musings serve.

Sher’s adaptation is static. Sometimes the characters literally sit and read from Brown’s book. This will bore some people no doubt, but I found the material so emotionally compelling that I stayed engaged.

And this Neworld Theatre production, which is being presented by The Cultch, is handsome. In the livestream I saw on Saturday night, Marcus Youssef’s delivery as Ian started off mannered, his vocal pattern an odd, stuttering staccato, but he settled into a fluent, grounded, and honest delivery. Sharpening the internal conflict between profound love and insistent practicality to a piercing point, Meghan Gardiner broke my heart as Johanna. And the intelligence and straightforwardness that Synthia Yusuf brings to Hayley provided me with asylum.

I’ve been wandering the digital world watching recorded and livestreamed theatre and the team at The Cultch is one of the very best at delivering this hybrid form. Working with director Chelsea Haberlin on The Boy in the Moon, director of videography Cameron Anderson takes full advantage of the intimacy of close-ups and the dynamics of shifting depths and perspectives.

This production is the most satisfying piece of theatre I’ve experienced in a good long time.

THE BOY IN THE MOON By Emil Sher based on the book by Ian Brown. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. This Neworld Theatre production, which is being presented by The Cultch, is livestreaming until May 9. Here’s where to get tickets.


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1 Comment

  1. Christine Barker

    Your review is excellent – I watched the play, and admired it as much as you did!
    I also commend all the hard work and creativity by the Cultch team, who have worked so hard throughout the pandemic to produce many amazing works.


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