The work of Canadian playwright George F. Walker finds a home yet again in Ottawa as part four in his famed Suburban Motel series, The End of Civilization, takes the stage at The Gladstone. Produced by Same Day Theatre Company and directed by local theatre legend Mary Ellis, this piece captures what it means to be lost and frustrated by a broken system that promises success and happiness. The text itself is compelling and feels very contemporary; however, this particular production does not stick out in my mind as being new or exciting.
Written originally in 1997, the play focuses on down-on-their-luck spouses Henry (played by David Frisch) and Lily (Julia Le Gal) who find themselves in desperate times when Henry can’t seem to hold down a steady job, let alone get hired. With seemingly no other options available to them, the two are forced to leave the suburban life behind them and subsequently rent out a motel room in hopes that Henry will gain better access to employment opportunities in the city. The search appears to be futile though as Henry’s downward spiral is soon linked to a bomb threat and a series of homicides, an investigation lead by detectives Max Malone (Geoff McBride) and Donny Deveraux (Brad Long), and consequently Lily is compelled to make some of her own tough decisions, influenced in part by the mysterious presence of fellow motel tenant Sandy (Catriona Leger).
Some of the design elements in this show seem fairly subdued as they seem to communicate neither a specific time, nor any real significance to the piece itself. The set, designed by Margaret Coderre-Williams, is certainly functional and appears to be the inside of a 2 star motel room, but sadly it is a little forgettable. The costumes, designed by Vanessa Imeson, are also underwhelming and not the usual calibre of both function and fashion that I have come to expect from this particular designer.
For example, Sandy comes across as being a bit of a rough-and-tumble chick who doesn’t take crap from anyone. She’s sure and confident in her choices as an escort, and she’s quick enough to capitalize on the power that comes from selling your company to the multitude of lonely individuals in Walker’s rather destitute universe. Apart from a pair of knee-high black leather boots which are sexy and powerful, the fashion choices (peplum, really???) fail to do this character enough justice considering her limited, yet incredibly important, time on stage. Finally, the constant blackouts in between scenes are more of an annoyance than anything as nothing about the set ever changes or moves.
In regards to the performances, by far, I think that Leger and Long are the strongest in this piece. As previously mentioned Leger is not on stage often but she manages to dig deep into this intriguing character and definitely delivers every time she walks through that motel door. Her relationship with Lily and how the women seize control over their lives is one of the major axioms in the play and is something that resonates strongly in the world today. I only wish that Le Gal had brought a little more oomph to their scenes because they have some seriously interesting subtext.
Deveraux, played by Long, is another complex character that draws my attention. On the outside he presents as the funny guy “good cop” but as the plot unravels we see a hollow shell of a man desperate and lonely, embittered by never having found true greatness and constantly being passed over. Long takes a fantastic arc that starts out being genuinely funny; crosses into feeling creepy and threatening; and finally ends on a note of aggression and violence. His scenes with both Le Gal and Leger are excellent as he really delivers the necessary menace and cruelty that underlies Deveraux’s clown façade.
Frish and Le Gal as the Capes are admittedly not my favourite. The chemistry between the two feels mismatched and, during this particular performance, it seems as though there is little to no momentum in most of their scenes together on stage. In one moment, for example, Henry has Lily up against the front door during an extremely heated argument but the aggression Frish plays never feels threatening, it feels awkward; and Le Gal comes off as only being mildly affected by this incident when this is suggested to be a major turning point in their relationship.
Last but certainly not least, it is refreshing to see McBride in such a gritty role especially if you are more accustomed to seeing him with the more fanciful THUNK! Theatre. As gruff investigator Max Malone, McBride is engaging and epitomizes an individual who’s “getting too old for this shit”. Unfortunately the leather jacket he wears for the majority of the production seems extremely large for McBride’s frame which tends to undercut the air of authority and power he is giving through his performance.
Ultimately the overall direction of this production could have been pushed further. It doesn’t feel especially fresh or contemporary and, with the exception of Leger and Long’s performances, doesn’t offer me anything more as a spectator that I couldn’t have gotten from reading the text myself. It is disappointing because this text speaks volumes to the Millennial Generation coming out of post-secondary (and even grad school) as fully qualified individuals and expecting employment, only to be frustrated by an extremely shallow job pool. However, for some reason, nothing about this piece as a whole suggests being in touch with a younger or future generation. Technically, I suppose, this production excels if we’re talking straight page-to-stage direction but artistically it just comes across as a little lackluster.
The End of Civilization by George F. Walker
Produced by Same Day Theatre Company
Playing at The Gladstone until May 31st. Ticket info here.