by Lynn on October 3, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

Bone Cage

At Hart House Theatre, Toronto. Written by Catherine Banks. Directed by Matt White. Set designed by Elizabeth Kantor. Costumes designed by Ming Wong. Lighting by David DeGrow. Starring:  Nathan Bitton, Layne Coleman, Samantha Coyle, Jennie Egerdie,  Lindsey Middleton, Kyle Purcell, Tim Walker.

Plays at Hart House Theatre until Oct. 5.

Playwright Catherine Banks won the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for Bone Cage. It’s a gripping, compelling play about people trapped in their jobs, relationships and lives. They hope and dream of a better life but are thwarted by circumstances, society, lack of opportunity and despair.

We are in rural Nova   Scotia. Jamie has just come off his night shift as a tree processor—a job in which he strips trees bare for the chain saw, mulching etc. He delicately holds a  dead bird that has died because of him. The tree processing machine destroys everything on and in the tree, including nests, birds, eggs etc. He laments what he does for a living but needs the money. He’s getting married in a few days to Krista, his high school sweetheart. He hears that his boss is planning on demoting him to ‘chain saw’ which pays much less. He tries to enquire about a job in BC but lacks the schooling. He is desperate to leave but knows his fiancée won’t agree. His prospects are looking bleak.

His father Clarence, has never praised him; devoting himself to the memory of a son who died when he was a young boy. In fact Clarence believes in cryogenics and hopes to get some of his dead son’s DNA and combine it with a fertile egg to resurrect the kid. This is the world that Jamie lives in. Krista is focused on the wedding and not to what they will do after that. His sister Chicky pines for her married lover.

Playwright Catherine Banks paints a world for these characters that is very narrow, bleak and soul crushing. She is not afraid to go to the dark side of a story, But her writing is vivid, poetic and very funny when you least expect it. Rather than distance us from her story, she draws us in. It might not be a story that we have experienced, but she does make us understand and feel for these lost, characters.

The production is also one of the strongest I’ve seen in years at Hart House Theatre. Director Matt White has realized Banks’ world through the evocative set by Elizabeth Kantor of a bridge and a tangle of twigs and branches underneath it—the effects of Jamie’s destruction with his tree processor.

As Jamie, Nathan Bitton has the angular, boyish body language of a man who is both rough and rousing but also sensitive in his quieter moments, after a shift, looking at the destruction he has brought. And Bitton makes you heart sore for Jamie’s dilemma—wanting to leave but having no place to go or prospects ‘out there.’ As Clarence, Layne Coleman has the energy of a man possessed by a ridiculous thought—to bring back his dead boy to life. Coleman shows a man definitely on the edge of sanity. As Chicky, Samantha Coyle is confident but with the desperation of a woman who loves a man who isn’t free. She is a jangle of frustration and her frustration is obvious when she quietly rages.

White establishes relationships well but I have one quibble. He begins the show with a rousing number in a bar. The bar folk including Jamie are there line dancing of sorts. The problem is that after that Jamie leaves the bar to go to the bridge above the town to sit alone, caressing a dead bird. That sober scene with the bird is actually the beginning of Banks’ play. To begin the play with the dancing number sets the wrong tone and confuses the audience. We never see that kind of abandon again in the play. That is the only miss-step in White’s fine production.

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