“Issue” plays are a tricky thing, dramatically. You start out with a question – say, what is more important, justice or peace? Then you create two characters to embody the two different perspectives, and let them go at it, mediated by a handful of supporting characters who try, in different ways, to pull the principals away from their fated collision. If it’s a tragedy, they fail.
The master of the form was Sophocles, and as I’ve said before in this space, I’ve never really warmed to the great tragedian’s work. (I like him best when he’s transmuted into something more akin to Euripides.) In lesser hands, the risk is that the clash of ideas obscures the conflict of characters, and what should be drama declines into more debate.
Judith Thompson’s new play, The Thrill, which opened last night at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theater, is one of these “issue” plays. The issue, in this case, is the right to live, and the right to die, on the part of disabled people. As one would expect, the play contrives to set two ideological enemies in conflict: one, Elora (Lucy Peacock), a disability-rights advocate who is herself confined to a wheelchair due to a congenital degenerative disease; the other, Julian (Nigel Bennett), a Peter-Singer-esque utilitarian advocate for the right of parents to commit infanticide in order to spare severely disabled children a life of misery and pain. The ancillary characters are Francis (Robert Persichini), Elora’s full-time aide and dearest friend, and Hanna (Patricia Collins), Julian’s mother, who is fitfully cared for by her loving (but globe-trotting) son as she slides deeper into dementia.
Elora crashes a lecture by the man she calls “Satan,” and it’s love at first collision. Against her better judgment, she agrees to debate him in public. And then on a date. And then . . .
Well, then the curtain goes down. Director Dean Gabourie is very decorous about the physicality of Elora’s disability. When she gets a sponge bath, she’s not only fully hidden, but fully clothed. When she and Julian begin to make out in the restaurant where they meet, the lights dim just as Julian prepares to remove her from her chair. Is this an attempt to preserve her dignity? Then why does he strip Pat Collins on stage (Hanna refuses to get out of bed to let her son change the sheets, and he finally loses patience, picks her up, and pulls off her filthy nightgown)? It reminded me of the way in which “The Sessions” was so explicit about showing us Helen Hunt’s body in all its glory, but shied away from exploring John Hawkes’s twisted frame. Lucy Peacock does an excellent job of moving – and not moving – the way a “bed pan crip” as she calls herself would. I have no doubt she would have handled going the next mile as ably as Ms. Collins did.
But this decorousness extends to the ideological conflict and its character-driven underpinnings. Julian is given a back-story that explains both his enthusiasm for euthanasia and his attraction to Elora. You see, he had a sister who, as a young child, was vibrant and alive, but who became severely disabled, and who died after two years of ceaseless physical agony, unable even to communicate. He wished, all through those years, that he could release her from that hell, but there was nothing he could do. So he wants future parents to have the right to do what his parents had no right to do: kill their suffering children. When he meets Elora, a “goddess” as he calls her, because she’s so full of life, he sees in her what his sister could have been had she not died; he can show her the love and care that he, as a young man, denied his sister because he couldn’t stand to be around her pain.
Or so I presume. The thing is, the actual language of the play touches very lightly on what Julian sees in Elora, or how Elora feels about playing this rather obvious part in his personal psychodrama. At one point she talks (to Francis, who practically shoves the two of them together so that Elora might experience at least a moment of physical love before she dies) about not wanting to be somebody else’s fetish – “I’m not that desperate” – but that’s as close as the play gets to this particular bone.
And what about Elora’s love for Julian? What does she see in him, a fully-able man, but a man with a distinct lack of the qualities that so distinguish her – a ferocious drive to succeed, a need for control, a passionate investment in her senses. Julian is much more normal, even diffident. He feels bad for his mother – terrible – but he can’t imagine changing his life to accommodate her desire to be at home, not in a home. He is mesmerized by Elora, but he can’t bring himself to lift more than a finger to help her campaign to reform nursing homes and increase public support for home care (a campaign she got him to agree to join – which is how she talked herself into the acceptability of falling in love with him).
In other words, he’s a fairly ordinary, not very impressive guy, whose celebrity is a bit of a mystery, even to him. Is that what attracts Elora to him? His unexceptional normalcy? How does the knowledge of that fact make her feel? We don’t ever really learn.
At the interval, which falls on Elora and Julian’s first kiss, I turned to my wife and said: what’s going to happen now is, they’re going to become an item, and we’re going to see how each of them handle Elora’s precipitous decline in health. And this is indeed where the play goes. But again, it’s hobbled by a kind of decorousness. We see Elora attached to a food bag; we don’t see her losing her ability to speak, or control her head, or anything else that might make us feel what it’s like for Julian to experience her decline. Instead, we hear her ask for Julian to do for her what he promises to do for all like her: to kill her before she suffers any more.
Now, this was an interesting choice, I thought. Because the interesting thing about someone like Elora is that she is a winner. She has triumphed over adversity, and drawn greater and greater strength from every triumph. But all such triumphs – for the fully-able and the disabled alike – are short-lived. We will all, if we live long enough, suffer an inevitable and, ultimately, terminal decline. The boringly “normal life” that Hanna talks about having led in a wonderful monologue that is her attempt to write her own eulogy, ends in the horrible existence that we’ve already seen Hanna living through: paranoid, terrified, frail. Elora has been advocating all her adult life for those whom much of the normal world would rather see die than have to deal with. But she’s been advocating from the position of being living proof that disability is no real obstacle. How would she change when her disability begins, inevitably, to win?
I was really interested to know. I think it was a great choice by the playwright to go that way, and let us know. But I was disappointed; what she does is start talking in the kinds of cliches we’ve already heard. The text doesn’t take her to the very painful place I know that person would actually go – doesn’t let us truly feel her fears, her anger, her sense of betrayal. The most it does is let her let go of her obviously inadequate lover, and return to the arms of Francis, who will never leave her (because it’s his job not to, and because he’s her friend), and that she does all too easily. There’s a possible “message” in there about the limitations of eros relative to agape as the basis for a partnership that extends “until death do us part,” but it’s barely communicated because it isn’t deeply felt.
I want to be an advocate for this play. I think the “issues” that it tackles are truly vital – but that is because they really do tear our bodies and our hearts apart. We, in the audience, need to see that happen, need to feel like it is happening to us, for this play to deliver on the promise of its premise.
The Thrill plays at Stratford, Ontario’s Studio Theater through September 22nd.