Either you love Toronto playwright George F. Walker’s gritty dramas with their oh-so-dysfunctional characters or you hate his pitch-black works littered with f-bombs, guns and booze. Personally, I can’t get enough – there aren’t many other writers who explore the underbelly of Canadian society with so much empathy. And humour.
So I was thrilled that Same Day Theatre was presenting The End of Civilization, which is the one play of his 1990s 6-play Suburban Motel series that I hadn’t seen. For some reason, it’s never been performed in Ottawa. And it very well may be the best of the 6-pack.
There are five characters in The End of Civilization. There’s Henry Cape (played by David Frisch), a middle aged, middle class guy who was laid off and now, with his wife Lily (Julie Le Gal), has decamped to a crummy motel to hunt for a job in another city. As Lily says, “He’s been looking for work for 2 years – he’s never OK.” He’s having zero luck; as he says, “It’s like The Grapes of Wrath out there.” And he’s very very angry. Lily is terrified of losing their home and misses their kids something fierce. The woman in the next motel room is a prostitute, Sandy (Catriona Leger). She too is a mother. And she’s one tough cookie. Then there are the two homicide cops, Max Malone (Geoff McBride) and Donny Deveraux (Brad Long). Max is tightly coiled and ready to explode – particularly at his clueless partner. Donny is a doofus who has a mad crush on Lily (they were in the same chemistry lab in high school) and who also has serious psychological and substance abuse problems.
What separates The End of Civilization from Walker’s other Suburban Motel plays is that Henry and Lily are middle class folks, though they are rapidly spiralling down into the lower class. The rest of the series (Problem Child, Criminal Genius, Risk Everything, Adult Entertainment and Featuring Loretta) is peopled with the dregs of society – folks who have never had a decent break, much less owned a nice home and a minivan. But in this play, the middle class audience members can say to themselves “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. A very timely topic, considering the toxic personal debt situation in this country.
Walker takes an interesting approach to telling their story. He’s jumbled the timeline, so the audience has to piece the plot together. This isn’t too difficult, but it does challenge the actors, who must build their characters and relationships without relying on how they appeared in the previous scene. All five actors do so with flying colours…this is one very talented cast!
The play’s structure is amply supported by excellent lighting design (Jingwei Zhang and Martin Conboy) and sound design (Steven Lafond). The set (Margaret Coderre-Williams) and costumes (Vanessa Imeson) are also spot-on.
All of this is ably directed by Mary Ellis, who proves she not only is a talented actor but an accomplished director.
For those who enjoy George F. Walker and for those who are willing to try something edgy, Same Day Theatre has provided a wonderful opportunity to see an excellent version of one of his best plays. Be sure to avail yourself of this opportunity!