by Lynn on February 15, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live, in person at the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, until Feb. 19, 2022.

Written and directed by Keith Barker

Set designed by Shannon Lea Doyle

Costumes designed by Isidra Cruz

Lighting designed by Jennifer Lennon

Original music and sound designed by Christopher Stanton

Cast: Kristopher Bowman

Jonathan Fisher

Jenn Forgie

Nicole Joy-Fraser

Cathartic and heart-squeezing.

The Story. This is How We Got Here is about how the characters deal with grief after a loved one commits suicide. This is not a spoiler. That event is at the centre of the play and is referenced throughout.

Paul and his wife Lucille are marking the one-year anniversary of their teenaged son Craig’s suicide. As often happens when a child dies, it puts pressure on the marriage with doubts, recriminations and the power of inconsolable grief. Paul and Lucille have separated. She has gone to live with her sister Liset.

Liset is married to Jim. Jim is Paul’s best friend. All four people are grieving in their own way which often means that they close themselves off and don’t let others in, even when they want to help each other. And so it is with these four.

The Production. This is How We Got Here is presented as a proscenium production so the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre is reconfigured from its usual ‘in the round (oval) shape’. Shannon Lea Doyle’s set is simple with a chair over here and doorways stage left and stage right, and stage left has a raised wood section leading into a house. Behind an opaque wall are birch trees representing woods that has a path going up stage. Jennifer Lennon’s moody lighting is effective in establishing that dense wood behind the house.

Playwright Keith Barker has also directed the production, as he did when it was originally done in Toronto in 2020 at Native Earth Performing Arts. His direction is careful, sensitive and effective. Each character is hurting, angry, impatient with offers of help and yearning for solace from the grief. Paul is played with bristling impatience by Kristopher Bowman (Bowman is the only one from the Toronto production). His patience at any irritation is barely contained. Yet this performance shows a kind man with a gentle heart and a great capacity for love. As Lucille, Nicole Joy-Fraser is a woman of understated emotions. It’s a performance that slowly reveals the aching heart of this grieving mother. At one point Lucille sees a fox in the area—normal for living close to the woods. But Lucille thinks the fox might be the symbolic embodiment of her son who has come back and, in a way, give comfort. Nicole Joy-Fraser’ performance is both shy about such a notion and determined in her belief. Jenn Forgie plays Liset (Lucille’s sister) with a lot on her plate. She has taken her sister in and is trying to offer comfort, and not getting co-operation, and she has to deal with her husband Jim who has his own issues. The simmering grief of the characters and the unsaid concerns occupy everyone. Jonathan Fisher as Jim offers comic relief in a way. The production is funny with each character showing their quirkiness. Jim is perhaps the most steadfast. He tries to be a good friend to Paul but Paul buries his grief so deeply it’s hard to give comfort. Jim was the person that Craig called on the day he was going to take his life, ostensibly to go fishing. Paul always festered over that—wondering why his son never called him. Jim’s answer is heart-squeezing in its kindness and compassion.

The production is quiet. The actors speak so quietly that one has to focus all its attention on listening. It was wonderful hearing that kind of silence in the theatre again.

Comment. Keith Barker has referenced events that happened in his extended family. It’s not a play that is about suicide. It’s a play about the effects of suicide, what happens to those left behind. When Paul is remembering his son he does say that depression is a terrible thing. But we also see the grief and the questions of those who remain. “Could I have done more?” “Did I miss tell-tale signs I should have known?” “Why did Craig call Jim and not me?” “And what about that fox?”

Keith Barker is also referencing his Indigeneity in the production. He is Métis. Animals are revered and symbolic in telling Indigenous stories and so the existence of the fox is indeed symbolic to Lucille. She is not imagining the fox is her son reincarnated. It’s part of her belief. The play does not emphasize that the characters are Indigenous. One of the many beauties of This is How We Got Here is that the themes are universal.

And I think it’s a perfect play and production for our times. We have all gone through a lot in these last two years: yearning to be with loved ones and friends and not being able to; having endured loss and isolation and not knowing how to deal with it; finally being in a room with strangers, watching a play. That the play is about grief allows us to experience what the characters are going through and to have a cathartic experience. We weep for them and for what we’ve missed. And we get through it together.        

Produced by Native Earth Performing Arts, presented by the Shaw Festival.

Runs until: February, 19, 2022

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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