by Lynn on May 16, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont.

By Emil Sher
Based on the book by Ian Brown
Directed by Chris Abraham
Choreographers, Monica Dottor, Chris Abraham
Set and Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by André du Toit, Kimberly Purtell
Video designer, Remington North
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Kelly McNamee
Liisa Repo-Martell
David Storch

A heart-wrenching story of a loving family living with and caring for a severely disabled child, given a beautiful production. It’s more a confessional than a play and you sit and listen, but think, “there but for the grace of God….”

The Story and the Production. The play is based on Ian Brown’s 2009 award-winning book “The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son.” Brown is married to Johanna Schneller, the Globe and Mail’s film critic. Their son Walker was born with a genetic disorder that left him severally disabled; unable to talk, eat properly, walk, and generally function as a growing boy. Development is severely delayed.

The book was lovingly, respectfully adapted into play form by Emil Sher In 2014. The play chronicles the long, torturous journey of Ian Brown and his wife Johanna Schneller in caring for Walker while he was at home. Every decision is gut-wrenching. They re-think every decision from every angle because they just aren’t sure if they are doing the right thing. There are only 300 people in the world who have the same disorder as Walker so it’s not as if you can go to a local support group for solace.

When the audience enters the theatre the stage is dark and mostly bare except for a stylish table and chairs up right. At the back is an opaque wall with a door well in it and almost behind the wall is lush greenery. A cone of light shines downstage centre.

As Ian Brown, David Storch steps into the cone of light, takes a deep breath and begins to tells us in an initially measured, sometimes agitated way, about a typical night when he is awoken from his sleep by Walker who is hitting himself and obviously in distress. Brown has to calm Walker and disengage him from his feeding tube and other paraphernalia; lift him out of his crib—he is not an infant but the crib is safer for him; change his soiled diaper while trying to stop Walker’s arms from flailing; carry him downstairs—at this point in the story Walker weight 45 pounds—and then feed him a baby bottle and get him settled so he will sleep. Sometimes the process takes three hours. One exhales slowly. And this is just the opening scene.

Liisa Ripo-Martell plays Johanna Schneller with the same measured manner. You get the sense both actors are approximating the effort it takes not only take care of this boy, but also to keep an emotional even keel and not loose their composure, their grip with the constant need to give care. It is a very hard slog.

Initially there is a playfulness as Schneller and Brown explain how they met (she was his student and she was attracted). They marry and she becomes pregnant. She is tested for genetic disorders and none are found. Schneller says that if she knew her baby had this disorder when she was pregnant she would have aborted him.

When Walker is born it is obvious there is something wrong but their regular doctor is not there and they have to make decisions without sound advice. When their doctor does appear it seems that what to do is interpreted differently by both parents. One hears that nature should take its course and Walker should be allowed to die. The other hears that everything should be done to keep him alive. Dilemmas to keep you up at night.

While both parents are respectful and appreciative of the other’s support, the constant pressure of taking care of such a helpless child takes its toll on the marriage. They fight, snipe, loose their temper, emotions etc.

Also part of this family is their daughter Hailey (Kelly McNamee). As disabled as Walker is that is as healthy and vibrant Hailey is. To accentuate the difference, Hailey is a student of ballet and for most of the performance she affects ballet poses and performs en pointe. We learn later of the bond between Walker and Hailey and that Hailey’s dancing gives Walker such pleasure.

Chris Abraham’s direction is striking and beautiful. The lighting by André du Toit and Kimberly Purtell is particularly evocative. A roving circular frame of light slides across the stage, silently, often following either Schneller or Brown and often enveloping them. I liken that roving light to be symbolic of Walker, always present, always consuming his parents’ attention. Occasionally there is a photo of the actual Walker with his parents projected above the stage. The last one of the evening is the most poignant.

Brown and Schneller often move about the stage, interacting, telling the story, but the last section is performed sitting in two chairs downstage facing the audience. It is the most wrenching, emotionally gripping section of the play. At the end of it both David Storch and Liisa Repo-Martell are awash with tears.

Comment. There is so much to ponder in The Boy in the Moon. When David Storch, as Ian Brown takes that deep breath and dives into telling in great detail, an average night trying to get Walker to sleep after he starts hitting himself, I asked myself, “Who is he talking to?” Really, who is he talking to? Friends? Strangers? An audience? A confessor? I do liken this heart-shredding, loving show to being less a play and more a confessional. As if Brown and Schneller needed to do penance for something, perhaps for deciding to keep Walker alive. They constantly worry about how much pain he is in; how he handles it and how they can help him with it. Half-way through the telling they must make another gut-wrenching decision and they make it. And there is guilt. But there is also joy. Are they grasping at anything when they interpret what they see as a smile on Walker’s face, and they feel that means he is happy? I don’t know. And neither do we actually since Brown and Schneller say there is so little they know about the disorder and how it affects a person.

Both Ian Brown and Johanna Schneller are selfless, devoted parents. They agonize over the pain Walker must be going through. I wonder, therefore, why they did not decide initially to let nature take its course. They never lament the decision to let him live as a cause of their marital problems, their constant need for sleep, being held captive to his need for care. They are almost herculean in their devotion to him. They think about what questions they would ask him if he could reply. They want to know that he’s happy. They want to know if he’s in pain. They want to know so much.

In that last section, when David Storch as Ian Brown and Liisa Repo-Martell as Johanna Schneller are sitting forward talking about Walker and they are awash in tears, that is when theatre and real life become blurred. It’s not the characters who are so moved. It’s the actors. Storch’s face is awash in tears and his nose is running considerably. The same with Ripo-Martell. This isn’t acting, folks. These are two actors with young healthy children of their own, playing parents of a severely disabled child, and they are loosing it for real, it seems to me. And that takes me right out of the moment. It seems almost churlish to comment on such a moving moment, but that’s what I’m doing. Of course bearing witness to their confessional is very emotional. But one listens, ponders and tries to understand because as I said in the beginning, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Presented by Crow’s Theatre

Opened: May 12, 2017.
Saw it: May 13, 2017.
Closes: May 27, 2017.
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

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