by Lynn on February 25, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Brandon Crone
Set by Rachel Forbes
Costumes by Holly Lloyd
Lighting by Julian Bulof
Cast: Prince Amponsah
Benjamin Blais
Marcia Johnson
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah

The always provocative, always challenging Brendan Crone writes about disability, sex, trust, and love.

The Story. Freddie is a grown man who has been completely paralyzed since an accident years ago when he was a kid. He can’t speak either. He communicates by blinking (usually his left eye) and by using an alphabet board—a person reads out the letters and he blinks on the right letter. He lives with his mother Sharon, who takes care of his every need.

Sharon feels that Freddie should experience sex in order to move on with his life. He arranges for a sex surrogate/therapist, to awaken Freddie to the word of the erotic. Her name is Tara. The problem is that Tara has a boyfriend, Ryan, who doesn’t know the exact details of her job. When he finds out what Tara is doing with Freddie, matters take a dark, unsettling turn.

The Production. The audience is on both sides of the playing area. Rachel Forbes’ set is very simple. A long strip of linoleum runs the length of the playing area, thus suggesting a kitchen. There is a table set for tea in the middle of the playing space. There are two chairs, one on either end of the table.

Sharon serves tea to Tara and blathers on about her butter tarts and cookies and the neighbours and many things that make her laugh, which seems to be plenty. Tara waits patiently so she (Tara) can explain to Sharon her plans for Freddie and how she will move slowly so that she earns his trust and he becomes comfortable.

Tara asks to meet Freddie. Sharon wheels him in in his wheelchair. He is absolutely still. He makes no sound. As Tara is told, Freddie replies ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by blinking. Anything more involved requires the alphabet board. Tara reada out the alphabet and when Freddie blinks that letter is chosen as part of the word he is trying to say.

Sharon fusses over Freddie in an endless stream of pointing out the obvious, how much she loves him, and smothers him with hugs and kisses and straightens his collar, tweaks at his shirt. She generally treats him as if he is a child. Certainly Brandon Crone’s choice of name for this adult male character, Freddie, suggests that. Later in a call to her office, Tara tells the person on the other end of the line that Sharon ‘smothers’ Freddie.

As Freddie and Tara work together, Freddie forms a strong bond with Tara. We can see what is happening.

Tara and Ryan have a healthy sex life but Ryan is needy too, in his own way. He needs to know he’s great at sex. He has to be reassured. When he finds out the nature of Tara’s job regarding Freddie he’s shattered. How he deals with it is rather startling.

All of Sharon’s silliness and nervous chatter are realized in Marcia Johnson’s performance. Sharon is bubbly and attentive to Freddie and seemingly anyone who comes in the house. What seems missing, perhaps in the writing or in the performance, is a hint of the mother who is mature or strong enough to think her son needs a sex surrogate to move him forward in his development as a person.

As Tara, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah is kindly and professional. She is sensitive to Freddie’s needs. She is also joyously consensual with her boyfriend, Ryan. However she is aware and wary of his, perhaps, immature needs and has no qualms of putting the brakes on his needy aggressiveness.

Benjamin Blais plays Ryan with vigour and an unself-conscious enthusiasm.

The star of this endeavour is Prince Amponsah as Freddie. He is riveting. He must be still in his wheelchair for most of his scenes and communicate only with his eyes. Amponsah gives Freddie a stare that speaks volumes. While Freddie is totally helpless in that chair and in his own body, Freddie has power when someone wants him to ‘answer’ yes or no with his eyes. If Freddie doesn’t want to answer, and there are instances when he won’t, the effect on the other person is fascinating, in that they are helpless to make him do it.

Brandon Crone also directs his play and while he negotiates his actors around the stage with efficiency, there are some choices that could have been improved. It’s vital that the audience see Freddie blinking to see him communicate when a person asks him a yes or no question. Because Crone has chosen to have the audience on either side of the playing area that means we are seeing Freddie in profile for the most part. It’s difficult to tell if he is blinking or not if you can’t see the whites of his eyes, and in profile we generally don’t. If the production had been presented as if on a proscenium stage, with the audience looking head on, that problem could have been solved.

Comment. Brandon Crone is an edgy, challenging playwright. He is intrigued by stories that seem on the margins of ‘proper’ society. One of his plays was about children born because of a sperm donor who now wanted to seek him out, sometimes with disastrous results.

Contempt is another case in point of a challenging subject—the need for sexual discovery in the disabled. Crone fills his play with humour, a dream sequence, dancing, fantasy and harsh reality. But as is often the case when a playwright also directs his own play, the play needs cutting and the director does not seem to be ruthless enough to urge his playwright to edit.

Sharon is not a mother who is smothering her son, as Tara says earlier. She’s a childish one treating him as if he is a child himself. How do we reconcile this with a woman wise enough to think her son needs to have sex from a surrogate? I listened patiently to Sharon babbling giddily when Tara first visits trying to understand what all that silliness is. Is she nervous because of what Tara is there for? Possibly, but this scene goes on longer than necessary to establish something that could have been established sooner. I think the whole point of the mother’s behaviour with Tara, Freddie and later another character should be revisited.

I also found Ryan’s behaviour when he found out what Tara was about to do with regards to Freddie, rather startling, perhaps far fetched. I think that should be revisited as well.

Concerns aside, Brandon Crone always writes about subjects on the margins, and he makes us look there as well. Always a good thing.

The Contemptuous Collective in association with the Storefront Arts Initiative presents:

Opened: Feb. 19, 2016.
Closes: March 6, 2016.
Cast: 4 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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