Review: 1979

by Lynn on January 21, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Healey

Directed by Miles Potter

Set by Steve Lucas

Lighting by Nick Blais

Costumes by Jennifer Lee Arsenault

Sound by Thomas Geddes

Projections by Scott Reid

Cast: Christopher Hunt

Jamie Konchak

Philip Riccio

A political play about a decent, principled man. Naaa, nobody would believe it, except that Michael Healey wrote 1979 about Prime Minister Joe Clark with respect, affection and perception.  Philip Riccio brings all that out in his performance of the man.

 The Story. It’s 1979. We are in the Prime Minister of Canada’s parliamentary office in Ottawa. Prime Minister Joe Clark has been Prime Minister for six months (since June 2) and he has worked all that time with his Finance Minister, John Crosbie, to present a budget to Parliament. It doesn’t look good. Clark has a minority government and if the opposition joins forces with Quebec then the budget could be defeated and an election will have to be called.

The Production. Steve Lucas has designed a spare but rich-looking wood paneled office. Two large stands with the Canadian flag on each are at the back. Centre stage is the Prime Minister’s desk made of dark wood and almost empty except for a few files and the push button phone. Stage left is drapery that comes down only enough to cover windows, one assumes. After the curtains is a bank of dark wood doors hiding shelves and a really impressive sound system.

At the top of director Miles Potter’s engaging, very funny production, music is blaring drowning out what John Crosbie (Christopher Hunt) is energetically trying to say to Joe Clark (Philip Riccio) who is sitting in his chair looking up at Crosbie as he gesticulates wildly. Finally Clark points the remote control at the sound system and turns off the music. (music from such disparate artists as Bruce Springsteen and the Tragically Hip will be played).  Crosbie has brought him the latest gossip/news about the upcoming budget vote and it’s not good.

Everybody has advice for Clark on how to get the budget passed—John Crosbie, Flora MacDonald (Secretary of State for External Affairs) and Clark’s wife Maureen McTeer—and some just want to needle him like Pierre Elliott Trudeau. There’s even a visit from a surprising younger Stephen Harper who bends Clark’s ear with his own philosophy about politics and his admiration of Margaret Thatcher.

The thing is that Joe Clark is a man of principle and that integrity and his principles come out in Philip Riccio’s performance. He proudly wears a three-piece brown corduroy suit while others who visit him are in somber dark blue or black.  Riccio plays Clark with a clear seriousness. There is the pensive look, eye-brows knit in thought. There is a bit of a scowl as Clark ponders a point of interest. Riccio has lowered his voice to suggest Clark’s low voice and there is his deliberate slow way of talking, methodical, careful always measured. Riccio as Clark is rather touching when he expresses his belief that by being elected he has the right and responsibility to govern for as long as the term should be. He can’t get his head around the fact that he could be out of office if the budget doesn’t pass. And while the more wily politicians in his party—hello, John Crosbie—have all sorts of schemes to win the vote for the budget, Clark won’t go that route. Merit is how he works.

Writer Michael Healey has captured Clark’s respectful stance to hear out all arguments against him in order to then give a careful reply. While Stephen Harper extols the virtues of Margaret Thatcher, Clark waits for a point in time where he can quietly rebut Harper and remark on the cruelty of Thatcher’s ideas.

All the secondary roles are played by Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak who sometimes play characters of opposite genders. When Jamie Konchak plays Flora MacDonald she is almost motherly in her support of the younger Joe Clark. When Christopher Hunt dons the same costume and wig as MacDonald it’s more a joke and a bit of a send-up.  The characters are there to spar with Clark over policy, philosophy and politics. It’s to Healey’s credit that he is able to realize the subtle differences in each stance.

The facts of who these characters are, the details of their jobs, their place in history, are left to projections appearing on a screen at the back to tell us who each character is as they enter. The projection for Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s entrance is particularly festive—his three names pulse bigger and bigger which is appropriate for the ‘star’ that he is.

At times there is so much information being projected that Healey does a joke on himself, with the caption, “not more reading.” I must confess, I thought the information in the projections went on a bit too much. Healey so loves this world of politics.

Comment.  Michael Healey loves the thrust and parry of the heady world of politics. Sometimes I find that Healey goes on too long with that kind of argument. While the extended scene with Stephen Harper is interesting to see that even in his youth, Harper had his cold-blooded idea of politics, I wondered if it was truly necessary to be there, except perhaps to be clever and foreshadow the kind of politician he would be.

1979 is just the latest of Healey’s plays to deal with politics in some way. (Proud looked at the world of Prime Minister Stephen Harper). Healey is a perceptive, clear-eyed writer and shows that while Clark’s intentions were honourable and he was a man of principle, he worked in a shark-filled world. Clark was mocked for being a man of principle, but Healey doesn’t do that. He shows that the world of politics was changing and principles had nothing to do with it.

Presented by the 1979 Group

Began: Jan. 9, 2019.

Closes: Jan 27, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes approx.


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