Last Saturday night, I saw Judith Thompson's CRACKWALKER at the Factory Theatre. She wrote the play in 1979, and it made her famous.
The text more than stands the test of time. Thompson directs her own remount. While the staging is occasionally problematic, the performers more than make up for any directorial shortcomings. Their commitment and intensity make this a searingly memorable night of theatre.
The floor painting centre stage by Randi Helmers is rendered in the colours of the four directions. As grinding poverty, addiction, mental health problems and just plain bad luck push and pull on the characters, their lives are torn apart.
The Crackwalker of title is a homeless native man, living on the streets in a small Ontario city. Waawaate Fobister makes him a kind of trickster, who floats over and through the story, turning up, like trouble, when you least need or expect him. It's a memorable performance with beautiful physicality.
Another painting hangs above the stage: the headless torso of a woman's body with an open, bleeding womb, positioned between two headlights. The painting depicts an accident in which the viewer is both complicit and paralytic. It mirrors the play in which we witness an awful tragedy that seems impossible to stop.
Theresa is a young, intellectually challenged woman on social assistance, turning tricks in dive bars for pocket money. When Fobister lovingly places a rainbow tutu on Theresa, he appears to be grooming her for a lover. In fact it's a garland draped on a sacrificial lamb.
The play centres on two couples: Theresa and Alan, and Joe and Sandy.
Sandy, a tough, aggressive bartender lives and brawls in a sexually charged, punishing relationship with her alcoholic, abusive partner, Joe. Greg Gale seethes as Joe and plays the character on a knife edge. Joe is a victim of the vagaries of the economy as much as he's an abuser and his drunken fits of rage wax and wane with the state of his employment. When he comes home to try repair their relationship after disappearing months before to get work, Claire Armstrong gives a brilliant depiction of a woman who can't shake her love for an abusive man.
Theresa and her boyfriend Alan are a different kind of heartbreak. He truly loves her, but his obsessions and paranoia caused, in part, by the awful death of his father, have left him wary of institutional medicine and authorities in general. At first, he just seems like a good-hearted crackpot. When their baby arrives, and Joe becomes a breadwinner and a father to a sick baby, he cracks beneath the strain of overwhelming responsibility, with tragic consequences. Stephen Joffe gives an excellent performance as a fragile man in free-fall.
The character of Theresa is the lynchpin of the production. Yolanda Bonnell is fearless in showing a woman who is so passive, she's incapable of acting in her own best interest. She says what she thinks other people want to hear, and does as she's told. In a wrenching scene off the top, she's living on Sandy's couch, having run away from an abusive caregiver. Sandy accuses her of having an affair with Joe. Theresa explains Joe came home drunk and raped her. When Joe comes home, drunk yet again, and molten with suppressed rage, Theresa confronts him and tells him he's going to jail for what he's done. Joe says Theresa threw herself at him. Theresa realizes what ever she says, someone is going to be in trouble. She takes the path of least resistance and recants.
To reinforce this sense of a tragedy happening in community, Thompson puts a portion of the audience on stage. It doesn't serve to shrink the theatre and just looks awkward. Fobister's role is beautifully executed, but sometimes his presence in a scene is a distraction rather than a support to the action.
Still the problems with the staging can't deprive CRACKWALKER of its impact.
The Factory ends a fine season with a haunting revival.
THE CRACKWALKER continues at The Factory Theatre until April 10. http://www.factorytheatre.ca for tickets and information.