Full Review: REFUGE

by Lynn on April 27, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Mary Vingoe
Directed by Kelly Thornton
Set and Costumes by Laura Gardner
Music and Sound by Richard Feren
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Projection Design by Kaitlin Hickey
Cast: Andrea Davis
Ryan Hollyman
Mary Francis Moore
Raïs Muoi
Pamela Mala Sinha
Jason Weinberg

A well intentioned play about a time when the system in place to deal with refugees was problematic. A sobering refugee case reveals the problems with the system. The many problems with the play are another matter.

The Story. This is not about the open heartedness surrounding the Syrian refugees of today. This is about a young Eritrean man’s journey several years ago. He had been a soldier in Libya and saw atrocities. He who went from Eritrea to Libya; was captured and put in prison and escaped; got a false passport and tried to come to Canada. There was trouble. He was put in detention and all sorts of people tried to help. One woman was Pamela Ross, a Canadian of Indian descent married to an artist named Allan. Pamela is an art historian and a willing volunteer for such endeavours.

Pamela wants a lawyer friend. Saul Ackerman, to help the Eritrean man with his case. Matters are prickly here. Pamela’s grandparents were killed in the Air India explosion twenty years before and Saul Ackman was the one who defended the refugees who came to Canada and were responsible for the bombing. It’s intimated that Pamela and Saul had an affair but his defending the alleged bombers put an end to that. Also that put a rift in Pamela and her father’s relationship.

Saul Ackerman has agreed to take the case. He realizes the difficulty in which the Eritrean refugee no finds himself. He has no where to stay even though the refugee’s mother is living here. Saul wants Pamela and Allan to help the Eritrean refugee by putting him up in their house. Pamela and Allan at first are willing and take him in. But then they get suspicious at the behaviour of their guest. He keeps to himself. He is in his room all the time. Then things happen and they become fearful that he might be planning something. They want him out of their home.

The Production. I found the structure of this well-intentioned play odd. Coupled with that the director Kelly Thornton’s production also proves problematic. The set by Laura Gardner is a series of panels of see-through material. Most of the scenes take place in front of panels and are clear.

The first scene takes place up stage centre in a recording booth, with the gauzy panel down in front of it but you can see what is going on behind it, although it’s a bit ‘hazy’. A CBC radio interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) is interviewing various people over the course of the play on the life of the refugee that everyone was anxious to help. The structure of the interview is that she would ask the question but her voice would not be in the interview. Therefore her instructions to her guest is to repeat the question in the answer so a sense of seamlessness exists. There is a running gag that the person should repeat the question as a statement for seamlessness, suggesting the person is retelling the story without prompts, and one guest continues to forget to do that.

Often when Pamela is talking to Allan or teaching English to an adult student it happens at a table behind the gauzy panel where the lighting prevents us from seeing the scene clearly. One has to wonder why? What was Kelly Thornton’s intention here? Is this to add mystery? It doesn’t work. It’s frustrating.

Director Kelly Thornton keeps things moving, but again going from scene to scene as characters enter and exit from between or behind the panels sometimes seems awkward, even though effort is made to keep things simple.

The cast is strong. Mary Francis Moore as the Interviewer has that careless attitude of someone who would rather get the interview on tape than she has any interest in the subject. She gently, matter-of-factly urges the interviewee to repeat the question in replying to the question. It’s all wonderfully matter of fact. On the other hand, the main person she is interviewing, who can’t remember to repeat the questions in conversation is an enthusiastic, impassioned Raïs Muoi who plays Mebrahtu, a friend of the Eritrean man who wants asylum. Andrea Davis plays an earnest Amieset Zerisenai who is the mother of the Eritrean man. Aside from saying that her son is a good man I wonder what her point is in the play. She doesn’t seem to move it forward. At times Pamela Mala Sinha has a sense of urgency when talking to lawyer Saul Ackerman about defending Eritrean, but most of the time she’s low-key. Her husband, Allan, on the other hand is excitable, intense and anxious as played by Ryan Hollyman. Finally, Jason Weinberg plays Saul Ackerman as a smooth, savvy who knows the angles and this thorny world of representing refugees.

Comment. Mary Vingoe is one of the co-founders of Nightwood Theatre which is producing Refuge. Vingoe is basing her play on the case of Habtom Kibreab, an Eritrean soldier who came to Canada with false papers, applied for refugee status, waited 18 months for a decision and was denied. Vingoe knew an Eritrean woman working on minimum wage in Canada who lived for her 18 year old son. So Vingoe combined the two stories. She and her husband also took in a foreign student and were fearful of him, not realizing the pressures he was under.

In fact in Refuge there is such a situation. Matters look like they are unravelling and Pamela and her husband jump to a terrible conclusion.

For the most part, Vingoe has written a play with huge implications and insights into the refugee situation in Canada as it had been at the time of the Habtom Kibreab case. Too often people have given up everything to come here only to come up against an immovable, even cold-hearted refugee system.

I just wish the structure of the play and the revelation of the details of what happened to the Eritrean refugee were handled better. His story is so important and yet the play begins on a slight, funny note—the CBC interview of a character telling a story but not in the form that the interviewer wants. What is more important here—setting the seriousness of the story, or making light of it? Or is it a statement of the frivolousness of the media in handling serious stories? I don’t know.

The refugee’s mother is also superficially written. She talks of how good a man her son was; and always offered coffee and a lecture on the proper way to make it. I can appreciate that Vingoe knew of such a woman, but surely she should have been more richly written for the purposes of the play.

Refuge introduces important issues about a serious problem. I just wished the play and the production were better at illuminating and exploring those issues.

Nightwood Theatre presents:

First Performance: April 19, 2016
Plays to: May 8, 2016
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.


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