“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses. ”- Colette
Grief is not an easy emotion to navigate no matter how old you are. It is a feeling that is wholly different than that of suffering from depression, or anxiety, or bipolar disorder and thus why alongside these aforementioned diseases there are also specialists who provide counselling for those trying to deal with the loss of a loved one. Because the tricky thing about grieving is that everyone experiences it differently and this is the major axiom we see explored in Daniel MacIvor’s new play The Best Brothers, directed by Eric Coates, now running at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until March 29th.
A story about how brothers Kyle and Hamilton Best, after losing their mother, try to reconcile their conflicting emotions and their many unanswered questions. MacIvor’s script delves into the ritualistic and personal ways in which we grieve. We see that performing grief rituals like funerals and the business that comes with death have effects (not always positive) on the way the brothers experience their grief personally.
We watch the brothers try to give their mother the ‘best’ send-off possible, but it soon becomes too much for Hamilton (John Ng) who can’t understand how his brother (Andy Massingham) is able to organize his emotions and grief into neat little piles. Hamilton’s repressed resentment towards his mother causes him to lash-out as he tries to find somebody responsible for his mother’s freak death. As per usual with MacIvor, the show is very monologue heavy with the late Ms. Best appearing in very stylized scene transitions to deliver her colourful backstory in her own words.
I thoroughly enjoyed the scene work between Massingham and Ng as they play off each other wonderfully. Massingham characterizes Kyle with effervescence and quirkiness that is in stark contrast with the sullen professionalism of Ng’s Hamilton. Director Coates does a good job of letting the tensions build and rise which allows them to crackle and explode at the right moments.
Conversely, I found that the character of Ms. Best (played alternatively by both Massingham and Ng) lacks some depth compared to her sons, remaining rather static both vocally and physically. Both performers appear to adopt only one tone and one pose throughout her many monologues, consequently rendering them a little dull to watch. However, the content of the text that this character delivers is undoubtedly moving and the moment where she waxes poetic about the love of a pet and another where she discusses why death is much harder to deal with when there is love involved will surely pull on your heartstrings.
On a much more personal note, which is rare, this production spoke to my individual experience a lot. Having lost my mother over two years ago now to a long-standing illness, I can remember going through those exact motions that we see enacted on stage: the announcement of death; writing the obituary; deciding on things like times for the wake and visitations, flowers, and the eulogy; sending thank-you cards; dealing with the final Will, etc. There were ways in which I reacted to those around me that I regret when I now look back on how I initially dealt with my grief. I felt very much like Hamilton in that I was angry and I couldn’t understand why the many doctors and specialists were unable to help my mother, the absolute last thing I wanted to do at that time was organize a funeral service.
I responded coldly to family members when asked my opinions on things, saying that I didn’t care what we chose, to just pick whatever. I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere; I desired only to retreat within my grief within myself. It was as if I had lost my purpose, my light, the shit that keeps you fighting and I refused to acknowledge that anyone outside of my immediate family could feel the same way.
What I’ve come to realize is that the point of these funeral rites, and we see this briefly explored in The Best Brothers, is to create a communal space where the impact of the deceased individual can be appreciated and mourned. Where those who are grieving can come together for a brief moment in time and space to acknowledge and accept each other’s sorrow. It’s not just about family, as Kyle argues, but also about those outside the traditional familial boundaries: the pets, the lovers, coworkers and casual acquaintances; for they came to know that individual in a way that is different and utterly unique to them.
For me, being at the head of the receiving line was kind of a blur. I couldn’t tell you exactly which friends and family members came or even how many people were there. I couldn’t tell you what flowers we had, what music was played, or what the priest said during the service. What I can tell you is that I remember distinctly meeting each and every one of my mom’s volunteer drivers from the Canadian Cancer Society. People who had come to know my mom through spending hours upon hours with her in a car as they commuted to and from the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Their grief, though different than mine, was just as deep.
The play ends on a hopeful note with Kyle telling Hamilton to “let her go” and it seems to suggest that both brothers will be on the onwards and upwards. This sentiment appears to come from a genuine place which I can certainly get behind, however, I feel as though the rest of the play deals with these themes more effectively than how it chooses to finish with them. Grief has the ability to change a person, sometimes drastically, and to let something like that go is often times easier said than done. For the most part, it is a day-by-day work in progress and, while I understand that the exploration of this concept might go beyond the scope of MacIvor’s text, the assumption that curing grief is as simple as accepting someone’s death and “letting them go” remains somewhat problematic. What does it mean to “accept” death and subsequently what does it mean to let someone go? Are they physical techniques adopted in day-to-day life or transcendental ideals? What happens when these fail?
All in all, the GCTC has done a fine job with MacIvor’s newest script. The performances alone make it an event you don’t want to miss, and if you are someone who is dealing with loss you might find this show to be rather cathartic. The Best Brothers is poignant and funny, emphasizing mourning as relative to the individual while also encouraging you to laugh at your own sorrow. Through Kyle and Hamilton, MacIvor shows us how grief can make us react and break down in the strangest of ways but that it is only a natural consequence of trying to stay so strong.
(In dedication to my mother, Tracey McFarlane, 1965-2012)