When we met Kat Lanteigne the day before her new play, Tainted, opened at Aki Studio Theatre, the first thing she did was apologize for her eye twitch. She had been getting less than four hours of sleep a night as she readied the production for the stage.
Tainted, directed by Vikki Anderson and presented by GromKat Productions and Moyo Theatre, is a play that takes on Canada’s tainted-blood scandal, exploring the devastating impact that tainted blood products have upon one fictionalized family.
While the play is a work of fiction, Lanteigne said all of the stories woven into it were told to her by victims of the scandal and their families. “I didn’t want anything to infringe on the truth of the play,” she said. “Everything in the play is factual, six ways to Sunday. Every story in the play is true. I wrote the dialogue and created it based on all the interviews that I had with people across the country.” All of these interviews were distilled into the experiences of the one family in Tainted, the Steele family.
Every aspect of Tainted was a labour of love. The money was raised entirely through donations and fundraising events, much of it from people who, like Lanteigne, simply wanted to see the story told. Lanteigne herself has a personal connection to the subject matter. “My uncle died of AIDS, though not from tainted blood, in 2001,” she said, “and I really understood the family dynamic of what it’s like when an illness like that is in a family, and what it does when you’re just trying to have supper and do ordinary things. I also really had to figure out for myself how he had been treated with such inhumanity by the world.” Another extended family member of Lanteigne’s was also diagnosed with AIDS, which had been contracted through tainted blood. “I was a teen, and my mother was trying to explain government betrayal to me.” These stories have followed Lanteigne throughout her career, and three years ago, when she began to do research for Tainted, she became became consumed by the story.
Canada’s tainted blood crisis occurred in the early and mid-1980s. A U.S. company called Health Management Associates sold HIV and hepatitis C infected blood and blood products, much of it acquired from inmates in the Arkansas prison system and other high-risk populations, to Canadian blood banks. As many as 30,000 people were infected with the tainted blood, many of them haemophiliacs dependent upon blood products.
As a result of the scandal, the Krever Inquiry, a royal commission headed by Justice Horace Krever, investigated the agencies responsible. The inquiry recommended both compensation for victims and the creation of Canadian Blood Services.
The plot of Tainted follows the Steele family from the first moments of the scandal, in the late 1980s, up until 2007. All three of the Steele sons—Jeff, Scotty and Leo—suffer from haemophilia, and all of them become infected. Jeff’s wife, Jacklyn, also becomes infected by her unknowing husband. The family suffers and celebrates, looks for justice, and struggles with love and grief together. Some family members, especially Jeff, become consumed by the scandal, giving over their lives and failing health in an attempt to get some kind of answer for what happened to them. Others, like Scotty, turn to denial as long as they can, or attempt to carve out a life outside of illness. It’s an intensely difficult story to watch. There are moments when sickness and illness strip everything away from the characters except their humanity.
The cast of Tainted is tremendous. Owen Mason, who plays the youngest son, Leo, has a wisdom and gentle humour that carries a great deal of narrative weight. The intensely physical performance by Gord Rand in the role of Jeff Steele is a highlight. We watch his confident posture gradually bend, first with anger and later with crushing sickness. It’s a draining, sustained effort, and there are very few scenes that don’t make huge demands of all involved. The play’s run time—100 minutes with no intermissions—is exactly right. It brings the audience to the limits of its emotional endurance.
The writing is often raw, with an arterial, unpolished intensity that shows just how close the subject matter is to the creators. The tension brought on by the characters’ worsening health and the ever-increasing loss is well-paced and captivating. The conclusion of Tainted is difficult. It gropes for a kind of peace, attempts to gesture towards the hopeful, but buckles. The final few scenes’ attempt to shore up some kind of optimism feels weak in the wake of so much loss.
The story of the Canadian tainted-blood scandal is a deeply important one, and Tainted does an excellent job of humanizing the story. What it lacks in slickness and sophistication, it makes up in guts and blood, with a commitment to uncompromising honesty no matter how painful. It’s a play to be endured, but, like any act of love, it’s worth the labour.