Review: This Was the World

by Lynn on February 13, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Ellie Moon

Directed by Richard Rose

Set, costumes and projections by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by André du Toit

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Dakota Ray Herbert

Brittany Kay

Kim Nelson

R.H. Thomson

Rachel VanDuzer

Ellie Moon has written a play with a promising premise of examining old power and new ideas in an academic setting, but it splinters in focus and does not realise that promise.

The Story. From the press information: “John, a 60-something white professor of Constitutional Law and Indigenous Rights is unhappy with a new faculty hire.  He seeks to draw a student into his conflict with the Dean’s office, which leads to a complaint, which leads to a reprimand, which leads to a breakdown of the man, his daughter, and their understanding of the world. A play about old power and new ideas, academia and decolonization, language and authority.” And it’s also about mental illness.   

John tried to make points with his young students by talking to his class about his daughter Ava’s mental problems. Ava found out from a friend in her father’s class.

John is of the old school of professor. Language should be used properly and almost formally in class. His objection to the new hire, Dr. Winter, is that he feels she is hired because she is Indigenous and he feels that isn’t a good enough reason. He can’t/won’t acknowledge that her being Indigenous makes her finely tuned to the law and its implications. The Associate Dean who is questioning him on the situation calmly says Dr. Winter was hired because she is qualified and the search confirms that.  Her being Indigenous adds another layer to her qualifications.

John also taught the new hire.  He remembers a student who was not stellar and the language used was not formal but colloquial.  John is approached by Niimi, an Indigenous student,  about auditing his course. She is also taking Dr. Winter’s course but feels that John’s course could fill in gaps not covered in Dr. Winter’s course. John agrees to this arrangement but also tries to draw the student into his desire to continue to question the qualifications of the new hire. This leads to a complaint to the Dean’s Office and the Associate Dean now questions the student. If anything is clear in these situations it’s that language is loaded and very often misunderstood no matter how hard one tries to be clear. There is a lot of misinformation swirling around with various people, including the Associate Dean having to back track.  Trying to correct all the facts with the parties concerned is like trying to catch feathers in the wind. The results take its toll on John and Ava.

The Production. We get a pretty clear idea of John’s (R.H. Thomson) confidence, arrogance and privilege in the first scene. As John, R. H. Thomson sits in the office of Terry (Kim Nelson), the Associate Dean.  He’s relaxed. He stretches out from his chair with his legs crossed and resting on his briefcase. She’s called him in to talk about important issues and he’s treating this as an informal chat. R.H. Thomson gives a performance full of nuanced details, a shrug of the shoulders, an off-handed attitude, self-confidence in his winding, formal way of expression. Terry, as played by Kim Nelson, is anything but casual. She sits straight in her chair. She is contained and controlled. She is dealing with serious concerns and she has to get John to acknowledge them. She is formal and direct. In one of those ironies of life Kim Nelson was actually a lawyer before she became an actress, and that sense of decorum, that formality is there in her fine performance.

We also get a sense at how fragile John is in his skin when the complaint is lodged. It’s the beginning of his downfall. Here Thomson is distracted, unhinged and confused. Thomson gives a master class in acting in his performance.

Dakota Ray Hebert as Niimi the Indigenous student who initially quietly challenges John’s ideas. She is curious when she says she would like to audit his class in addition to taking Dr. Winter’s course for a fuller understanding of the material and the issues. But later in the play she takes a seat at the back of the theatre to get ready for the class. In this scene she is almost combative as if she is cross-examining John about his attitudes. Here Dakota Ray Hebert is measured and formidable.  It’s an interesting placement of the character by director Richard Rose. Perhaps that distant placement is trying to suggest a court room with John as the defendant. Rachel VanDuzer as Ava, John’s fragile daughter and Brittany Kay as Tanya Ava’s easy-going friend, round out the cast.

Comment. If Dr. Winter is now eligible to be hired, then it seems reasonable to assume that John taught her years before. He does not consider that she might have changed from that unremarkable student to an engaging professor.

Ellie Moon is a provocative playwright. Her plays deal with challenging issues. Ellie Moon has created an interesting character in John: arrogant, blinkered to the changing world, stodgy in what is important in teaching but unaware. Certainly dealing with John’s constricting attitude towards teaching and a wider view is engaging in today’s fraught, fractious world. But what his daughter Ava does during the course of the play veers the play away from the main theme I think. And the way John has his downfall also veers away from the main point. It would not be credible for him to suddenly have insight into this changing world, but to have him completely diminished is equally unsatisfying.

The premise in the play is promising to open a dialogue. But the play as it is, does not realize that promise.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Opened: Feb. 5, 2020.

Closes: March 1, 2020.

Running Time: 90 minutes  approx.

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