The Boy in the Moon Brings a Quiet Strength to the Stage

Brianna McFarlane

Ian and Walker - G&M - Peter Power

(Photo Credit: Peter Power)

There’s an old proverb that says, “it takes a village to raise a child.” In Emil Sher’s stage adaptation of Ian Brown’s memoir The Boy in the Moon, directed by Eric Coates at the Irving Greenberg Centre, we discover how true that is through Brown and his wife Johanna’s determination to give their son Walker the best life possible. Their journey through feelings of self-blame and guilt, countless appointments with doctors and specialists, and dealing with extensive public scrutiny, while learning to love and accept their son, is a truly moving story in itself. And the world premiere of this script put on by the Great Canadian Theatre Company does not disappoint in illustrating the quiet strength of the text and the sheer fortitude of these characters in this unique situation.

You see, Walker Brown suffers from an extremely rare genetic disorder called CFC, or Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrom if you want to get technical about it. CFC affects something like one hundred people in the entire world, so as you might imagine, finding medical help and appropriate treatment isn’t as simple as going to your family doctor or pediatrician. To make matters worse, CFC results in some distinct physical symptoms such as skin abnormalities and delayed growth, as well as mental handicaps that can range from mild to extreme or, in Walker’s case, profound. This means that Walker’s speech faculties are severely hindered, limiting his overall ability to communicate; he feels the constant need and/or desire to self-harm by hitting himself in the head repeatedly; and must be fed through a stomach tube all of which makes him completely dependent on others for his entire life. Questions surrounding what it means to have a good quality of life figure prominently throughout this piece.

BITM Peter James Haworth, Manon St-Jules, Marion Day with Book & sketch on screens - photo by GCTC Andrew Alexander

(Photo Credit: Andrew Alexander)

          The text breaks down into three sections. The first is comprised of the Browns’ struggle to find a diagnosis for Walker in hopes that it will lead them to some sort of cure or to a step-by-step guide teaching them how to live with CFC. The second section begins with the realization that there is no “guide,” and how Ian and Johanna handle raising Walker and its subsequent effect on their marriage, their relationship with their daughter Hayley, and ultimately their views of themselves and of society. Finally, we transition into the third section, in which the Browns finally find an appropriate group home for Walker and their emotional journey through extreme guilt about abandoning their child to letting go and eventually to acceptance, knowing that they can no longer raise their son alone. As it is aptly pointed out in the show, there is a big difference between wanting help and asking for it.

A well-balanced narrative renders fluid the boundaries between verbatim theatre and the pained memories of the characters within it; the piece also fuses elements of the original novel, such as an abundance of descriptive text, throughout.  The audience is welcomed into the play’s universe, which is at once reality and the subconscious, storytelling and recollection, mimetic and digetic. Between moments where characters address the audience directly and others where we are privy to the real moments in their lives through various flashbacks, you get a real sense that you are being personally invited into the subconscious of the Browns.

The overall design of this production is beautiful in its simplicity. The major action takes place on a raised thrust stage, covered in hardwood with an array of patterned rugs lying out haphazardly, with two wooden chairs comprising the furniture and a number of hanging square canvases constituting a sort of backdrop. Designed by Robin Fisher, the set appears to be a trifle nondescript until her well-executed, and thoughtful projections come into play, which add a distinct texture to the stage and incorporate a feeling of fantasy when necessary. Moreover, the way in which the canvases are layered and hung provides the actors with another physical element to explore.

An equally strong design element in this production is the sound composition by Samuel Sholdice. It’s exciting to see more companies and productions experiment with live sound on stage – it adds a much different aspect to a piece than pre-recorded sound. There’s life to it, as though another character takes shape in the musician’s play. Sholdice’s soundscape accompanies this story brilliantly, commenting on and accentuating the corporeal happenings on stage. From the sounds of lullabies on a xylophone, to the way in which the voices of the actors are manipulated to imply the convention of memory, each moment is sufficiently supported on an auditory level.

BITM Sam Sholdice - photo by GCTC Andrew Alexander

(Photo Credit: Andrew Alexander)

          Director Coates has cast quite a strong ensemble for this show and it was refreshing to see some new faces on the GCTC stage. Peter James Haworth, playing Ian Brown, pulls off the journalistic tone required to convey Brown’s candor, sardonic sense of humor and, above all, the self-assured tenderness Brown develops for his son. Marion Day, playing the supernumeraries as well as Hayley Brown, gives great versatility in her characters, remaining neutral and restrained when playing the various doctors and voices, as if to keep them removed from the situation, while delivering characters like Hayley and Olga with lightheartedness and great empathy. Yet, it is Manon St-Jules who steals the show for me as Johanna Schneller. Her clear dedication to the role enables her to recreate Schneller’s amazing emotional and mental journey and, through her success in re-enacting the full and complete arc of this character, it is difficult not to be touched by her performance.

Last, but certainly not least, credit must be given to Mr. Coates himself who handles this production exceedingly well. Of course it doesn’t really push any sort of boundaries theatrically or textually, but to expect such, I think, directly undermines the original intent behind creating this piece: as a tribute to the late Charles Dalfen. Coates, through his design concept and within his scene work, effectively blends the conventions of memory and verbatim styles found naturally in the play text along with the distinct narrative voice of author Ian Brown himself. Furthermore, the staging, while generally kept simple, allows the stories and the emotions of the characters to take center stage. Yet the added moments of physical movement (which could have been integrated even more) create variety and interest for the spectator.

Overall, this is a well-rounded and commendable production that shines a spotlight on a very exceptional story. One thing that sticks with me from the show is Johanna’s monologue about desperately wanting to find a diagnosis for Walker in hopes that some sort of “how-to” manual will come along with it and how disappointed she was when no such manual exists. Having this story on stage really allows it to embody that “how-to” guide for other individuals in similar situations because, as Schiller once said, “sight is always more powerful to man than description.” If this production imparts anything to new parents, it’s that you don’t have to do this alone, you just have to find your village.

The Boy in the Moon is definitely a strong season opener and sets the bar high for the GCTC’s 40th anniversary season. Coates is back this coming March directing The Best Brothers written by Daniel MacIvor and starring Andy Massingham and John Ng. The Boy in the Moon is playing until October 5th.