by Lynn on June 7, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until June 17, 2023.

Written by Nick Green

Directed by Andrew Kushnir

Designed by Joshua Quinlan

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Sean Arbuckle

Laura Condlln

Linda Kash

Davinder Malhi

Krystin Pellerin

Sophia Walker

A cathartic, deeply moving play about living and dying with AIDS, with burst out loud laughs when you least expect it, with a stunning performance by Sean Arbuckle. The production is beautifully directed by Andrew Kushnir.

The Story. Casey House is a specialty hospice in Toronto caring for people with Human Immunodeficiency Viruses (HIV). The play takes place in 1991 before the cocktail of drugs was discovered that could control HIV and prologue the life of those infected with HIV. At that point there was nothing to be done but make the patient feel comfortable until they inevitably died.

One such patient is Thomas. He has been at Casey House for five months and he is nearing the end. But the patients have been told of an upcoming event that changes their lives—a royal visit from Princess Diana. Thomas is buoyed by the prospect of the visit. He is ready to meet her.  

The Production. There is a box of Kleenex on the counter outside the theatre auditorium. It will be needed. We are told at the end of the production there is a comfort room with someone to talk to should a person need it.

Joshua Quinlan has designed a comfortable looking room with two beds. This is not a typical ‘hospital room.’ There are vibrant coloured bed coverings on each bed. There is a window up center that can be opened or closed behind one of the beds. This is Thomas’s bed. To the left of that room is an alcove with a desk. It’s a nurse’s station of sorts.

The other bed is by the stage right wall, perpendicular to it. There are two chairs in the room.

At the top of the production, Thomas (Sean Arbuckle) is laying in bed. There is a lesion on the side of his bald head. A woman in a pink suit stands downstage, her back to us, looking up stage at Sean. The tilt of the head conveys that it’s Princess Diana (Krystin Pellerin).  She is formally introduced by a nurse, Vera (Sophia Walker).

As Thomas, Sean Arbuckle sits up in his bed, delighted to see this icon he has revered since she came on the scene to marry into the royal family. He puts out his hand to shake and realizes this might be too forward. He says with a hint of hope, “I heard you touch people.” The point is of course that people hesitated to touch a person with HIV. Diana goes towards him without hesitation and shakes his hand firmly and holds it. It’s a moment of stunning kindness and humanity.

Thomas breathlessly tells her about her wedding day, in great detail. It’s a speech filled with the joy of the event and the recall of the details of the dress, the crowds, her poise. It’s a speech that goes on and on, to the point that I wonder if she will get a word in edgewise. But of course, patience is needed for playwright Nick Green to layout the play; to recollect memories; to wonder if this is real or imagined. For the recollection Krystin Pellerin as Diana, calmly listens to Thomas’ memory. She kneels deeply close by the bed. She sits on it, first with her back to the audience, then moves to the other side and sits beside him, facing the audience. She says little but when she does, it’s with a gentle English accent, total concentration of what he is saying and tremendous care.

The play moves back and forth during that time when the news that Diana is set to visit Casey House in a week and will visit the rooms of each patient. Playwright Nick Green presents this news in a wonderful way. Vera tells her patients that Diana will visit in seven days (not a week). The number of days gives the patients something to hold on to; to tick off on a calendar as the days go by; to note they lived one more day until they could meet her. The impending visit had a great effect on the patients of Casey House. They rallied; took care to shave and be clean; to move; to hope. Stunning.

Sharing Thomas’ room is Andre (Davinder Malhi) an angry, unsettled young man who has just arrived and is fearful his mother will find out.  Vera is a matter-of-fact nurse and is beautifully played by Sophia Walker. She is all business but is compassionate. She has been at this job for a long time and knows how fragile emotionally the patients are. Contrasting her is Marjorie (Linda Kash) a cheerful volunteer who blurs the lines between being helpful and breaking rules to be compassionate. Rounding out the cast is Laura Condlln at Pauline, Thomas’ estranged sister. She said hateful things to him as a gay man. For much of the play she won’t touch him. She asks the questions one might ask today: why is her brother still in Casey House five months after moving in? Why can’t he come and live with her and have her take care of him? (a horrible thought). What Pauline doesn’t understand is that at the time there was no cocktail of drugs to prolong an HIV patient’s life. If one went into Casey House they generally were not coming out. Laura Condlln does not shy away from the uglier parts of Pauline’s character. She is blinkered, cruel, often homophobic and clueless about what her brother is going through. Laura Condlln gives a blistering performance as Pauline.

In a moving scene the personas of the compassionate Princess Diana and Pauline who finds her own compassion, meld and comfort Thomas, holding his hand.  

Director Andrew Kushnir has used the space of this small stage beautifully. He has ensured that every person in that audience sees every moment without obstruction. There are chairs located in the room, but they are rarely used, because the visitors sit on the bed or stand close to it, indicating that the visitors care deeply for these patients.

Comment. Thirty-three years after this event playwright Nick Green has written a play that celebrates the patients who just wanted a little dignity as they came to the end of their lives; the nurses who tended them as best they could and the volunteers who brought their own reasons for being there to help. It’s cathartic for people who lost loved ones. I heard sobbing from those in their senior years and those much younger. Be prepared. Bring Kleenex.  

The Stratford Festival presents:

Opened: June 1, 2023

Runs until June 17, 2023

Running time: 2:45 (1 intermission)

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