It’s not unusual to hear a young man’s coming-of-age story on Ottawa’s stages. You know—his first sexual fumblings with the opposite sex, clashes with his parents, fantasizing about being in a rock band, and enduring crushing feelings of inadequacy. What is unusual is hearing about growing up in a household that lives in social housing, and relies on food banks and Para Transpo. This is Cory Thibert’s story in Awkward Hug.
From the time he was three years old, Cory, his older brother Gary, and their parents lived in a townhouse administered by Ottawa Affordable Housing. When he was 19, his brother moved out; consequently, the housing authority informed his parents that they’d have to move into a smaller 2-bedroom apartment. This major disruption in Cory’s life was exacerbated by his parents’ inability to downsize their many possessions (they both sound like hoarders). His mother, for example, had two big filing cabinets stuffed with all sorts of papers. As Cory says, “she’s never had a job, so I just assumed being an adult came with a whole load of paperwork.” And his father equated the accumulation of possessions with “providing for his family,” even if the possessions had little value for them.
Cory’s father has other foibles, one of which hurt Cory deeply. When Cory began his acting career, his father would always walk out before the end of Cory’s performance. But this had nothing to do with Cory; rather, his father was obsessed with not missing the Para Transpo pickup he had arranged for himself and his wife. They had once missed a Para Transpo and had to wait for hours in the snow.
It’s during this time that Cory finally learned from his father exactly what makes his parents different from other kids’ parents. This is a family that doesn’t communicate much, including—remarkably—telling their sons what causes their severe physical disabilities. Being “normal” and fitting in are important to young people on the cusp of adulthood, so it was a shock when Cory realized that “the systems around weren’t built to handle difference, to handle my parents, my family.”
Cory Thibert’s storytelling has been dramaturged by one of Canada’s best storytellers, T.J.Dawe. Thibert’s mimicry of Dawe’s mannerisms and delivery are uncanny, although Thibert’s not quite as polished as Dawe. Unlike Dawe’s smooth verbal transitions, Thibert’s vignettes are divided by blackouts (at which point Thibert often avails himself of an off-stage water bottle). And there’s an unfortunate rupture in the flow of the storytelling when Thibert does a frantic pantomime of shifting furniture around in his tiny new bedroom, followed, for some reason, by a very loud punk rock interlude. Then there’s an abrupt shift into one of the most poignant episodes in Cory’s story. A bit more dramaturge work from TJ would be welcome here.
But on the whole, Thibert’s story is touching and engaging.
Awkward Hug is playing at Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave) as part of the undercurrents festival until February 9, 2020. The play is approximately 70 minutes long, with no intermission, and a “14 years and up” rating. This reviewer attended the February 7 opening night performance. Information and tickets are available online and at the undercurrents festival box office.