Diane Flacks’s Waiting Room finds drama in neonatal medicine, while Rick Miller's Boom chronicles a generation.
Someone must have declared January to be “medical month” for Toronto theatre. First, the Next Stage Festival gave us Piece by Piece, a drama about strangers who bond while spending time in a hospital. Then, Nightwood Theatre premiered HER2, a comedy-drama about strangers who bond while spending time in a hospital. And now we have Tarragon Theatre‘s Waiting Room, in which strangers… OK, you get the picture.
All three plays make effective dramatic use of their setting—a place where mortality is uncomfortably close, where medical science is put to the test, and where the atmosphere is thick with hope. Waiting Room, the new Diane Flacks play at Tarragon, is the most fraught and moving of these three works, partly thanks to its subject matter: the efforts to save an infant battling a life-threatening brain condition. While the other two plays were undeniably emotional, showing us middle-aged and elderly characters grappling with cancer and dementia, there is something especially heartbreaking about watching a small child struggling to remain in a world it has only just entered.
We don’t actually see baby Jessica, but we do get to know her well through her distraught young parents, Chrissie (Michelle Monteith) and Jeremy (Jordan Pettle). They practically live in the hospital waiting room, fuelled by coffee and anxiously devouring any crumb of promising information from their hotshot doctor (Ari Cohen). Unfortunately, while a brilliant surgeon, he has the bedside manner of an Easter Island statue. He either barely responds to their queries or, if pressed, overwhelms them with technical information.
It turns out the doc, Andre, is struggling with a brain disease of his own. He has early-onset Alzheimer’s and he’s determined to overcome it by secretly trying a new, untested drug treatment. He’s convinced Melissa (Jenny Young), a fellow doctor and his lover, to assist him in the experiment.
Andre brings the same risk-taking and determination to his care of Jessica. Flacks sets up a conflict between his hell-bent approach and the more pragmatic one espoused by his superior, the level-headed Dr. Aayan (Warona Setshwaelo), who insists on considering the real possibility that the baby won’t beat the odds and advocates for palliative care. Their clash is echoed in the waiting room, where Jeremy stokes his desperate hopes with internet research, while Chrissie has begun to accept that their child might not survive.
We’re as on-edge as the characters in Richard Greenblatt’s tense production. The fights between Pettle’s Jeremy and Monteith’s Chrissie, loving parents who can’t see eye to eye, have the painful sting of authenticity. As the rogue physician, Cohen deftly conveys both an Asperger’s-type personality and the symptoms of early Alzheimer’s. There are solid supporting performances from Young as the conflicted junior doctor and Jane Spidell as a battle-scarred mom who befriends Chrissie, while Setshwaelo’s Dr. Aayan radiates reassuring competence and authority.
Playwright Flacks, who has been a chronicler of parenthood since her 2005 book-turned-play Bear With Me, was inspired by her own experiences as a mother with an ailing infant at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital. She begins the play with a whirlwind of medical jargon that will leave non-experts in the audience struggling to catch up. But her maternal side shines through later in the lovely monologues she gives Chrissie—dreams and memories of her baby daughter, delivered with quiet poignancy by a luminous Monteith.
Flacks isn’t the only theatre artist drawing inspiration from her offspring. Writer-actor-singer Rick Miller’s stated purpose in creating Boom, his razzle-dazzle solo show being presented by Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre, was to give his young daughters a crash course in their grandparents’ generation—that being, as the title suggests, the baby boomers. The project also proves a good excuse for Miller to display his considerable gifts for vocal mimicry, first revealed in his popular Shakespeare-meets-The Simpsons piece, MacHomer. This time out, he gives voice to a breathtaking array of boomer icons, from Pierre Trudeau and JFK to Janis Joplin and the Pillsbury Doughboy. He has to be admired for the range, if not always for the accuracy, of his imitations.
Boom begins in 1945 and follows the childhood and adolescence of the boomers, ending with their young adulthood at the close of the 1960s. Miller, playing family historian, filters the seismic events of those 25 years through the memories of his mother, a sheltered girl from Cobourg, Ontario, and the two men she loved: a cartoonist-turned-adman, born and raised in Austria, and an African-American blues musician from Chicago. (Miller leaves us guessing which of these two men ended up being his father until the final minutes of the show.) The conceit allows him to view the era, not just from a Canadian kid’s perspective, but also from the vantage point of young people growing up in postwar Europe and in the U.S. during the civil rights movement.
Although Miller shows us brief interview clips of his mom and her two lovers, he supplies their voices, as well as those of just about everyone else seen in the endless flurry of vintage film, video, and still photos that make up the visual half of this audio-visual spectacle. He also impersonates a string of famous vocalists representing the changing sound of pop music, starting with the big-band crooning of Perry Como and moving on to the rock ‘n’ roll of Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Miller gets boomer points for not just including the usual suspects (the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan), but also nearly forgotten chart toppers like Frankie Avalon and Little Eva. And he gets a further bonus point for working in the late Joe Cocker and his unhinged Woodstock rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Considering that we’ve been inundated with boomer nostalgia for so long, Boom feels over-familiar. But it gains by having the voice of Laurence, the Chicago bluesman, who looks back with a healthy dose of good-humoured skepticism. And if you’re young enough never to have heard of the Marshall Plan, the Just Society, or Sly and the Family Stone, this show is an entertaining history lesson.