Review: R-E-B-E-C-C-A

by Lynn on February 12, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Sara Farb
Directed and Dramaturged by Richard Greenblatt
Set and Costume Consultant by Robin Fisher and Elizabeth Nutting
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Movement Consultation by Viv Moore
Composed by Reza Jacobs
Projection Designed by Cameron Davis
Starring Sara Farb

Actress Sara Farb gives voice to her developmentally challenged sister named Rebecca who can’t really express herself. But she also gives voice to a double Rebecca and that’s where the play’s problems begin

The Story. (Backstory) Sara Farb’s sister, Rebecca, was born seven weeks premature. When Rebecca was about two she was put through a battery of medical tests and it was discovered she was “developmentally retarded,” which is the quaint phrase used to describe the condition then. Today with a touch more sensitivity Rebecca would be described as “developmentally delayed.” Rebecca is now 21 but with the mental capacity of a three or four year old. Her body develops but her mental growth remains the same.

The play examines the simple daily life of Rebecca. It also gives a hint at the patience and good will of the people around her. Rebecca looks forward to going to a special summer camp in July and seeing her counsellor Dave and her other friends.

When July comes and Rebecca is at camp, playwright Sara Farb creates an imagined Rebecca who is a counsellor at the same summer camp. In the program (but not in the play) the real Rebecca is called ‘May’ and the imagined Rebecca is ‘July’ For the purposes of the review I will now refer to the Rebeccas as May-Rebecca and July-Rebecca.

The July-Rebecca has all her faculties but suffers from deep depression, is totally self absorbed in her depression and loathes almost every person with whom she comes in contact. She cuts and punctures herself because otherwise, as she says, she has no feelings for anything, and she desperately wants to feel something. Then something drastic happens to both Rebeccas at camp and life seems to change for both of them.

The Production. Director Richard Greenblatt and his design team, Robin Fisher and Elizabeth Nutting, have created a set of steps covered in white cloth and to the left of that a rock formation, also covered in white cloth. The steps suggest a place where May-Rebecca will go to think and settle down for her time outs. The rock is part of the camp sequence in the second half of the play.

The production starts with a home video of the 18th birthday party of May-Rebecca. She wears a party hat and sits in front of an elaborate birthday cake with pink and blue flowers made of icing. We see hints of the people tending her. An arm here cutting the cake and putting it on her plate. The shadow of a person there. She is joyful at the piece of cake with a pink flower. But then she wants a piece with the blue flower. The answer seems to be no. Petulance, unhappiness, mild tantrums follow. At that point May-Rebecca is told to take a time out at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor of the house. There is a projection of stairs on the back wall.

At this point Sara Farb as May-Rebecca enters from the wings saying “bitch” and says it in two syllables. She is not happy about not getting that second piece of cake. Farb sits on the ‘stairs’ structure. With the projection of the stairs in the background, May-Rebecca on the white stairs looks like she is taking her time out at the bottom of the stairs. Nicely done.

Farb does a beautifully rendered impression of her sister. Her voice is high and flighty. She repeats everything. She smiles almost all the time except when she’s denied cake (and I don’t blame her). Her fingers flutter in the air or her two delicate hands tap each other gently, as a habit. She flits from joy to petulance on a dime. She talks about looking forward to camp and Dave, her favourite counsellor.

July arrives. A lake scene is projected on the back wall and we are now in the summer camp where May-Rebecca is a camper. We are introduced to July-Rebecca, a counsellor at the camp. She stands on the rock, sometimes pacing, jumping, flitting from one point to another. She is animated, talkative, expressive and by general appearances normal. Normal except for the fact that July-Rebecca has been diagnosed with severe depression and takes pills to ease it; normal except for the fact that she cuts and punctures herself to feel something besides being in a numbed state; normal except for the fact that she plans on doing something dramatic at a certain time and will video-tape it; normal except for the fact that she loathes every single person she comes in contact with at the camp.

She has disparaging nicknames for everyone (douchbag-Dave) even those she might not know well. One person is referred to as having spindly arms and legs. That person is May-Rebecca. July-Rebecca’s invective is withering. The speed at which she spits out the nicknames is confusing because we don’t know the people to whom she is referring. References to ‘succubus’, ‘trogs’, sci-fi shows go by in a blur.

July-Rebecca muses on how a person becomes developmentally delayed. If a person is born very prematurely, such as May-Rebecca was, then there is a high risk the person will be mentally damaged. July-Rebecca seems to think that would be better than what she is experiencing now. Her lament that she doesn’t feel anything unless she’s cutting or gouging herself is disingenuous. She does feel something deeply—it’s total loathing for the world. That’s a definite feeling.

Comment. I can appreciate that Sara Farb wants to give voice to her developmentally challenged sister Rebecca in her play. She does it beautifully in her delicate performance of her sister. It’s the character of July-Rebecca that is the problem in R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Why is she there? Is she illustrating that if one is born after coming to term that it’s still possible to have emotional, psychological difficulties? Farb goes to the opposite end of the spectrum of emotional problems and creates a character severally depressed and full of loathing to make this point? That’s a stretch.

May-Rebecca’s mental difficulties and July-Rebecca’s mental difficulties are hardly comparable. One can’t be helped. The other gets some help from medication. Is Farb trying to reflect the reality of teen girls who have severe depression? That changes the play completely. Truth to tell, the point of July-Rebecca is not at all clear. I shouldn’t have to go to the press release, or Farb’s program note, or Artistic Director Andy McKim’s program note for answers. The play should do the explaining, and this one doesn’t. Farb has said in her program note that she has mused on what it would be like if her sister was not ‘mentally retarded.’ This doesn’t seem to be the play that explores that musing further.

On a purely technical note, July-Rebecca needs another scene after the life-changing event that seems to change her life. May-Rebecca has her scene of ‘closure’. Now July-Rebecca needs hers. After July-Rebecca does something intuitively and selflessly, we need to have a scene that illustrates if July-Rebecca recognizes this as truly life-changing.

Farb needs to give R-E-B-E-C-C-A another re-write or two, to rethink what she really wants to say and how to say it. Giving voice to May-Rebecca is clear and endearing. The voice for July-Rebecca is unclear, unfocused, relentlessly angry, and confusing,

Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille

Opened. Feb. 10, 2015
Closes: March 1, 2015
Cast: 1 woman
Running Time: 80 minutes.

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1 Jessica February 13, 2015 at 9:42 am

“The play should do the explaining”.
Hear, hear!!!