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by | Apr 19, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

I wasn’t very engaged — I checked my watch a couple of times — and then tears were streaming down my face. For me this production of Keith Barker’s This Is How We Got Here took a sharp U-turn at about the 60-minute mark of its 80-minute playing time.

It takes a while to figure out what’s going on in Barker’s story, which is set in a rural community, but it eventually becomes clear that a young man named Craig has committed suicide and, a year later, his family is still reeling. Lucille and Paul, Craig’s mom and dad, have separated. Lucille is staying with her sister Liset and her husband Jim. Jim and Paul, who used to be best friends, are angry and estranged.

Barker breaks the chronology into shards and rearranges them, so, as an audience member, you spend a fair bit of energy trying to figure out where we are in the story at any given moment. That’s a kind of engagement, but I’m not sure it adds much thematic resonance.

More problematically for me, the same pattern repeats in two-person scene after two-person scene: the characters talk in circles — and, more than once, they acknowledge it. Liset challenges Jim: “Can you just do what I ask for once instead of all this hoopla?” Barker is playing with rhythms, sometimes for comic effect — that Liset/Jim exchange is a classic sitcom riff on male slovenliness — but I didn’t find any of this clever or funny. On a deeper level, you could argue that this inability to communicate is the groove the characters have all fallen into because they’re not addressing the harder stuff. I appreciate this strategy, but there are subtler and less repetitive ways to apply it.

But then the script opens its heart and all sorts of richness pours out. At about the hour mark, Paul and Lucille start to blame one another for their son’s death. “Nothing he ever did was good enough for you,” she says. And he accuses her: “You never let him stand on his own two feet.” These recriminations are like surgery without anesthetic — and they allow the story to deepen and move.

At some point in the evening, everybody gets a monologue. In an effective reversal of what actually happened, Lucille says, “I didn’t go to your hockey games … We never had the awkward sex talk, and you never teased me about it for years afterwards.” When Liset and Jim finally open up, their stories add dimension to the effect that suicide has on everybody in a community. Liset, who has been very upbeat, breaks down and tells Craig, “Now it feels like I loved you too much.” But everybody knows that the more emotion is repressed the more moving it will be when the dam breaks. Paul is a tough guy: his dad beat him and he’s angry with Craig for not pulling himself together. But, when Paul finally cracks, well, that’s when the waterworks started for me.

Because Craig is Indigenous and the suicide rate for Indigenous Canadian youth is disproportionately high, there’s another layer of sorrow.

Under the direction of Donna Spencer and Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen, who also plays Liset, the acting in this production is generally strong but somewhat inconsistent. Both Ravensbergen and Tasha Faye Evans, who’s playing Lucille, deliver persuasively naturalistic work. And Darcey Johnson’s Jim feels as gritty as a pair of old work socks. Barker’s writing of the character sometimes feels too on-the-nose — “No, we don’t do that, the touchy-feely thing” — but, capturing the character’s innocence, Johnson makes it work.

My reaction to Gordon Patrick White’s portrait of Paul is more complicated. While everybody else is talking like normal human beings, White delivers his lines in a voice that makes it sound like he’s a radio announcer from the forties: deep, booming, declarative. For me, this distracted from the emotional content of his characterization. I could see it was there, but it was obscured. All that said, in the final blows, White’s work wrecked me.

Kimira Reddy’s set, with its suspended birch trees and electric lights, is spacious but unsurprising. As is typical of MJ Coomber’s work, the sound design supports the storytelling without intruding upon it.

In this production of This Is How We Got There, I wish the early part of the journey had been more rewarding. But, in the end, I’m glad we got there.

THIS IS HOW WE GOT HERE by Keith Barker. Directed by Donna Spencer and Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen. On Thursday, April 18. A Firehall Arts Centre production at the Firehall Arts Centre until April 28. Tickets and information

PHOTO CREDIT: (Photo of Tasha Faye Evans and Gordon Patrick White by Sarah Race Photography)


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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.