Photo by Ed Gass-Donnelly.
Ten years ago, eminent Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s rather controversial (not to mention absolutely brilliant) Heaven opened at the Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre. And that was it. For the next decade, Walker abandoned the stage, working entirely in film and television (Niagara Motel, an adaptation of his Suburban Motel play cycle, CBC’s This Is Wonderland, TMN’s The Line, and the upcoming Living in Your Car). In some ways, it feels like he never left. Factory Theatre rarely announces a season that doesn’t include a Walker remount or two (including this season’s Featuring Loretta), and even stuffy old Stratford did Zastrozzi last year. But now, he’s back for real, and in a big way. This summer, King of Thieves (his new musical adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera) opens at Stratford, and last week, his first new play since 2000 opened at Factory: And So It Goes. If you recognize the title as a Kurt Vonnegut allusion, you’re on the right track.
Gwen and Ned are a middle-aged married couple with a couple of pretty big problems. For one thing, former financial advisor Ned lost his job in the recession, and Gwen, trained to teach high-school Latin, has a hard time finding work herself. On top of their financial problems, twenty-five-year-old daughter Karen has been a bipolar schizophrenic for the past couple of years, and is currently being charged for assaulting one of her social workers. Luckily for Gwen and Ned, they have developed a coping mechanism: imaginary conversations about their life with deceased author Kurt Vonnegut. Then, something really bad happens, and we watch the once “normal” middle-class family become increasingly unhinged, desperate, crazy, and finally, homeless. Since this is George F. Walker, all of this is somehow very funny. The stakes are high, the events are awful, and a happy ending seems out of the question almost immediately, but Walker’s text manages to bring a wonderful sense of humour and surprising optimism to a situation that would generally seem sombre and nihilistic. At one point, the family’s livelihood seems to depend on the success of a crème caramel.
The cast is exceptional. Peter Donaldson runs the gamut from amusing to alarming as slowly-losing-it Ned, while Martha Burns is absolutely compelling and believable as neurotic Gwen. Jerry Franken is a delight as Vonnegut. He’s exactly how you’d imagine him: friendly and avuncular, with a moustache, a bad sweater, and some profound, yet simple, truths to tell. But Jenny Young’s performance is the heart of the show. We first see her at her sickest, and she is so confused and frustrating you can’t help but feel sorry for her parents for having to put up with her. But the show also allows us to see her healthy, to find the person who had been buried under the disease, and the effect is heartbreaking, not to mention one of the most nuanced and realistic portrayals of mental illness we’ve seen on stage.
So, has Walker lost his touch after all those years working for TV? No. Here is a show that is at once gritty and realistic, goofy and whimsical, and cleverly meta-theatrical; in other words, it’s a George F. Walker play. And it’s a solid production as well, although we have to admit we weren’t crazy about either the set or the sound design, neither of which seemed terribly connected to the play itself. It’s interesting to note that Walker directed this one himself, and we can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if Ken Gass had helmed the production, since he has so successfully realized Walker’s work in the past. Of course, if we just give it another decade, Gass is bound to direct a remount for Factory’s 2020 season.
And So It Goes runs until February 28.