Scar Tissue captures family's angst and pain
Zoom Shot : Are you a Boomer or Gen-X? Does the thought of you being caregiver and helping Mom linger through five years of Alzheimer’s deterioration before death strike your fancy? Then you might well find Scar Tissue at the Arts Club Revue Stage a perfect antidote to smug self-comfort. Due to a riveting grasp on the various agonies of dying this way by Gabrielle Rose as the mom, viewers come away tasting, smelling, and feeling in their skin and their hearts how this cruel disease degrades its victims. Primary among the victims is Mary’s younger son David who obsesses over her demise, worrying he too will face the same fate without ever having "lived". Strong support is contributed by veteran Tom McBeath as the dad and by Megan Leitch as David’s wife Anna. Clever lighting and spare, utilitarian sets help focus on the pain being played out intimately on the coffee house Revue stage. Lots of words make up for not much dramatic action, but fact is this is a contemplative script first and foremost. Playwright Dennis Foon crystalizes the essence of an almost neverending soliloquy by David in the original Michael Ignatieff novel quite admirably.
* * * * * * *
Dennis Foon’s Scar Tissue script deserves full marks. It is crisp and succinct in its grasp of a novel that rambles a bit. Most of Foon’s play, by contrast, wastes nary a breath or nuance.
Within two minutes of curtain the audience has the dynamic tensions and characters at play here : mother Mary – a former exuberant artist in the early clutches of Alzheimer’s though just in her 60’s – her tortured and obsessed younger son the philosophy prof David, his older brother Nick, a neurophysician, and their dad Alex, an immigrant from Odessa who loves dirt, scientifically. As well we meet David’s charming wife Anna.
This is another “loss” story of the kind each and every one of us goes through as we watch a parent “leave”. David doesn’t want to lose the dynamic, effervescent, playful mom of his youth. He doesn’t want life to change. At least not so much. He prefers the laughing cigarette puffing beer swigging artist he remembers from his teens.
This angst about Mom dying – and him perhaps a few years hence as she is the 3rd generation to fall prey to Alzheimer’s – these facts propel David to be consumed by seeking the “answer” to life, which always involves denying, fighting, and cursing death. Every such lifequest of course zeroes in on family, from the big existential / Freudian queries to unmasking the small mysteries and absurdities of one’s childhood.
Foon flips the audience back-&-forth, toggle-like, between snippets of life now, life then in the Nevsky family in rural Ontario. The action occurs on a spare and functional set by Yvan Morissette that exploits the variety of uses simple materials like a library table and four chairs can be put to. Clever!
The multi-functional furniture on stage is backed by pivot panels behind that serve as doors, portals, and movie projection screens. John Webber’s jitterbug execution of lighting fades and spots assists the time and motion transitions nicely.
Mary descends, rapidly, from “funny” little repetitions of statements and questions to instantaneous rage over the whereabouts of a goddamned spatula or her goddamned glasses and then a kitchen-thrashing horror over an unfound teapot.
Meanwhile wife Anna, protecting herself and son Jack, challenges David’s compulsive obsession and never-ending care of Mary. She makes the moral choice to leave him – he must pursue emotional exclusion on his own.
For his part David insists on a need to understand the “deep, disastrous choices” he claims his mother made and the “why” behind it all to make sense of himself, somehow. Nick wonders why, too – why humans are “the only animals who don’t know how to die”.
These are the weighty questions that poets and avatars have posed for centuries. To make them the stuff of a stage play requires not just cleverness, but pace. After the opening scene, the pace of the play lags a bit as the complex relationships among the family need to be fleshed out. Act II, for its part, clips along a bit more. Altogether this is a reflective person’s play for certain – nothing frothy about it.
Gabrielle Rose as Mary plays her role flawlessly – from giddy in young momhood to furious in forgetting to wordless and resigned, save one last burst, at the end. Flawless hardly captures her work. Engaged. Dynamic. Vivacious. Her painful, pathetic jump-shuffles around her bed in the final scenes is a poignant performance writ large that may well bring tears.
Characteristically, Vancouver veteran Tom McBeath wrings every ounce from his role. In this he is all of stodgy immigrant, loving husband, disdainful patriarch toward David but boisterous in his embrace of son Nick.
Craig Erickson has the toughest role due to David’s myriad soliloquies. Erickson shows grit and dedication in depicting a romantic who’s stuck in a morass of sentiment and fear.
Megan Leitch as David’s wife is just right in her love, her hurt and her determination to survive.
Kudos : (1) To Director Craig Hall because he elects to change some of playwright Foon’s stage directions and push the play in a more believable direction. E.g. at the end when Mary has a last-breath manic explosion as an artist, he depicts her creation as a free-form blitz of colour and shape, not the landscape impressionism that Foon calls for.
(2) To Projection Designer David Cooper for the excellent 8mm movie clips : from Mary’s New York gallery show, her splash of red paint pitched at Alex the peeping tom at her country studio, and the dutiful shots of the boys at play on the shores of the Great Lakes. True home movies from the 50’s couldn’t surpass these for capturing the medium and the times and the Mary who once was.
Quibbles : (1) Clockwork. Regrettably there is no ongoing reference to time. The playwright’s stage directions in the script put David at 35 at the beginning, but there is no dialogue to fix this. That he turns 40 when there has been no obvious passing of a full five years of this immersion of David with Mom does not, cannot, impact the audience as much as it is meant to do. (Five years are the elapsed days of your kid’s B.A.+ M.B.A. degrees combined.)
(2) Foon reconciles David with Anna and son Jack in the end. In Ignatieff’s book no such reconciliation occurs. Nor, to this reader, does Ignatieff’s protagonist ever truly come to realize that life is this very second alone. Life cannot be lived honestly or courageously through either memory or future plans. Equally true, life is not reduced to DNA “predestination”. Still, in the context and medium of such live stage action as this, perhaps Foon’s alternative ending does the novel no real injustice.
Until April 28th @ the Revue Stage, Granville Island.