by Lynn on August 15, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Thrill

 At the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ont. Written by Judith Thompson. Directed by Dean Gabourie. Designed by Eo Sharp. Lighting by Itai Erdal. Sound by Jesse Ash. Starring: Nigel Bennett, Patricia Collins, Lucy Peacock and Robert Persichini.

Judith Thompson’s new play The Thrill, is both fascinating and frustrating. The play is fascinating because of the questions Thomson seems to want to explore: the rights of the disabled; the right to die if a situation is hopeless; what to do about the aged who are not able to be taken care of at home. And the play is frustrating because Thompson hasn’t explored any of these ideas fully or deeply. She talks around issues which is not the same as dealing with them.

Elora is a tough, hard-nosed lawyer. She has a brilliant mind and is a formidable opponent. When she embraces an issue she is like a dog with a tightly-gripped bone and God help anyone who tries to make her let go.  She is a champion for the disabled. She is also wheelchair bound with a debilitating disease that she was born with. She manoeuvers her motorized chair with one finger. Her hands and arms are coiled and cramped. She hunches and sinks into her wheelchair.

Francis is the gentle bear of a man who is her full-time care-giver and friend. He listens calmly to Elora’s as she rants and rages with breath-taking erudition about her latest gripe and cause. Her last cause, which lasted for years, was protesting Jerry Lewis and his devotion to his yearly Labour Day weekend telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. If there is an explanation as to why Elora was so opposed to Jerry Lewis and his cause, I missed it in Thompson’s play.

Now Elora has a new target. Julian. Elora calls him the ‘anti-Christ’. She says he is the worst of them all. Julian has written a popular memoir about his family and in particular his young sister Ruthie who had a debilitating disease; could not speak and was always in pain. For all his love for her, Julian thought it would have been better for Ruthie to have been allowed to die when she was first born and they knew of her problems. He didn’t take matters into his own hands and mercy kill her. In fact he was so distressed by her pain and suffering, he left the family for two years rather than deal with seeing Ruthie in such distress.  In any case Ruthie died young. As a result of the huge popularity of his book, Julian has been made the head of an ethics department at McGill. Elora has interpreted Julian’s book to mean that he would have put her to death at birth too, because she was so disabled.

A debate is arranged between Elora and Julian about their attitudes towards the disabled. When we meet him, Julian is courtly, mild-mannered who spends most of his time trying to refute Elora’s claims about him, and a bit under the gun.  He seems out of his depth with her as she circles him with her chair, firing comments at him to which he is slow to reply. In spite of all this, Julian is charmed by Elora and reluctantly, she by him.

In another scene we also see that Julian is a dutiful son to Hannah, his aged mother, suffering from dementia. She had been at a facility but hated it so much she begged Julian to take her home, and he did. She is now looked after by caregivers, until even that becomes too difficult. For all of Hannah’s lucid moments there are those moments when she endangers herself and Julian must then investigate putting his mother in a safe senior’s home.

How to sort out all these contradictions? We know about a character from what they say; what they do; and what people say about them. There are three sides to every story: their side, my side and the truth. Always consider the source of a statement.

So all the negative information about Julian and his book comes from one source, Elora. Her passions regarding her vendettas seem out of place—Jerry Lewis??? PULeeeze. Julian as the anti-Christ? Really??!! She interprets Julian’s comment that his sister would have been better off if she had been allowed to die at birth, to mean that people in her (Elora’s) severely disabled state should have been allowed to die at birth too. Julian never meant that and says so. So Elora is an unreliable source of information.  The result is that there is no debate regarding letting severally disabled babies die at birth.

Elora wants Julian to use his influence to lobby government to provide more money to families so that disabled, demented, elderly parents who need care, can live at home and not be put in institutions, which she refers to as “the Gulag.”  He calls some politicians but in his heart he feels that there comes a time when even home care is not an option and safe care in an institution is the only hope. Elora’s refusal to see any other side of the story also prevents the play from dealing with the issue reasonably.

If the play works at all it is to the credit of  the strong cast who by force of their performances fill in blanks in the play, or at least divert our attention to the fact the play is thin with pretentions to being weighty.

Leading the way as Elora is Lucy Peacock. Her performance is astonishing. She sits in that wheelchair, hunched over and twisted into the chair, arms close to her body, hands stiff, fingers curled, but the eyes beam brightly, the jaw fairly juts out challenging all and sundry. Miraculously she makes her head seem too big for her slight body. She fairly beams with confidence and the pleasure of being alive and being so obstreperous. This is a performance that dazzles with passion, conviction, fierceness, and bravery. It’s heart-squeezing to see Elora coping with the prospect of a fast decline—it’s a fleeting moment on her face, but it is resounding.

As Elora’s ‘opponent’ Julian, Nigel Bennett is the complete opposite of Elora’s description. Bennett’s performance is tempered, good natured, harried by both Elora and his mother, but controlled and compassionate.

As Francis, Robert Persichini is a bear of a man with a gentle, calming attitude. He meets every outrageous comment from Elora with a thoughtful, pointed response. It’s a funny, witty, compassionate performance.

And as Hannah, Julian’s feisty mother, Patricia Collins is feisty, stubborn, confused with that unmistakable ‘look’ of one with dementia, and full of concern that she will be put away.

Director Dean Gabourie moves the proceedings efficiently. His staging of Elora circling Julian in her chair is particularly effective. Gaborie establishes relationships with clarity.

Judith Thompson has written several speeches that are exquisite and so telling; Hannah’s lovely eulogy of herself (how she would like to be remembered) is both sad and poetic; Julian’s remembrance of his last day with Rosie is both painful and loving; Elora’s description of what her decline will be is again clear-minded and so sad. But it’s the larger issues that have eluded Thomson. She got the idea for the play from the 2003 New York Times Magazine article by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a brilliant lawyer, activist, and author, born with a debilitating neuromuscular disease, wheelchair bound her whole life. It was the cover story. Her picture on that cover was both stunning and shocking—sitting twisted and hunched in her chair; her head seemingly too large for her frail body. The text was brilliant.

“Thrill” is described as ‘to cause to have a sudden, sharp feeling of excitement’ what Elora feels when she’s in the throes of an argument; or what she feels when she’s with Julian. I wish I had that feeling with Thompson’s play. I also wish she had actually written the play that she describes. Now that would be thrilling.

The Thrill continues at the Studio Theatre until September 22.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.