Review by Wes Babcock
Getting To Room Temperature, a one-man show written by Arthur Milner and performed by Robert Bockstael, stages a simultaneously polemical and tender story of coming to grips not only with aging and death, but more importantly with the acceptability of the desire to die.
Bockstael controlled the mood of the audience throughout the performance with aplomb, drawing us through humour into the serious emotional business of death and back out the other side. This strategy works very well from a rhetorical perspective, and allows us the breathing room to consider the content of the show’s argument while preventing us from being distracted by the hard-to-avoid fears and emotions often caused by discussions about the end of life. It also serves as an effective and important way of developing Bockstael’s character, who is clearly struggling himself with overcoming the deep emotions of losing his mother.
There are a few moments where Bockstael’s performance crosses into the realm of ham humour. While it’s possible that this is a deliberate choice to bring another level of depth to the character of the narrator, it didn’t work for me, and brought me face to face with an actor on stage playing for laughs, rather than serving as a depiction of a character that is a bit of a ham.
The show’s script draws its strength from its simplicity and clear message. It does a great job of avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality that would undermine its effectiveness while addressing head-on the deep feelings that come with losing a mother. Again, the humour is an important device in accomplishing this end, as it serves to balance the emotional and polemical aspects of the show. Besides the odd word that felt slightly out-of-register for the diction of the utterance that contained it, the script does a wonderful job delivering evidence of a real human psyche in the character of the narrator.
The staging of the play is quite simple, a high bar chair on a rug, a side table with a beverage-filled glass, and a large projector screen serving as the only accessories to Bockstael’s performance. Ordinarily there is nothing wrong with this sort of no-place/any-place design, but it seemed a little contrived as a venue for the show we witnessed. It wasn’t intimate like a living room, nor institutional like a lecture hall, nor bare to facilitate the working of our imagination, any of which could be justified by the content of the show. Instead it was something between these three things, which, for me, failed to work as any of them.
I also didn’t find the production improved by its use of projections. They are infrequent enough to be distracting when they appear, and they don’t seem to draw any motivation from the content of the play. By providing concrete images of Rose (the mother character) to focus on, they work in opposition to the powerful voice-mail sound cue by diminishing our ability to fill the empty space she has left behind in our imaginations. Even when we have no idea about who has spoken, the words in the voice-mail cry out for a body to speak them; looking at pictures of a stranger, both physically and emotionally, doesn’t resonate in nearly as powerful a way as hearing that person’s voice.
Finally, the discussion of assisted suicide prompted by the show is one that we truly do need to address as a society. The production is worth watching for nothing more than this well-considered argument, but the argument would be far less effective without Bockstael to give it life with his solid performance.