Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
It has been a long time since I have seen a play as moving as This Is How We Got Here,” by Keith Barker, which recently played at the Aki Theatre in Toronto, produced by Native Earth Theatre, of which Barker is also Artistic Director. Barker directed this production of his play — which has been produced previously by other Canadian theatres. Well-written, well-acted, well-directed, with a simple and effective set, the play tells its story without tricks or glitter, but through the characters’ interaction. Clearly this is a play about an Indigenous family in a northern Canadian community, and its theme speaks to the frequent suicides of young people in these communities. Photo by Christie Wong
However (and essentially), the play also speaks to the way we all feel as human beings when someone we love dies, and how, with difficulty, we go on living.
Much of the action takes place on the first anniversary of the suicide of Craig, young-adult son of Lucille and Paul, and nephew of Liset, Lucille’s sister, and her husband Jim, Paul’s best friend. There are also scenes going back in time during this terrible year, showing “how we got here.” As Barker says in the program notes, the play “is about trying to find a connection after experiencing a devastating loss.” He adds, “There is hope in this play, too. It will dance around the edges and tilt its little head.”
The cast embodies Barker’s authentic, vibrant dialogue and also the non-verbal aspects of the characters — tone of voice, gesture, interaction (whether a fight or a hug, or simply sitting close together). They work well as an ensemble and individually, creating characters that linger in the mind long after the final curtain.
Michaela Washburn is excellent as Lucille, Craig’s mother, portraying vulnerability and anguish as well as strength. When, at the end of the play, her husband Paul, played by Kristopher Bowman, says that “things won’t get better, will they?” she replies, “No, but they will get easier.” Bowman is able to show Paul’s grief and love, underlying his anger, confusion, and sense of helplessness. As Liset, Tamara Podemski portrays a woman who is well-grounded and trying to support her sister, but also haunted by her own feelings. She tells an invisible Craig that she is “so angry” with him, although she was never angry at him in life. The scenes between Lucille and Liset show the love between the sisters, despite their differences. James Dallas Smith, as Paul, the fourth voice in this quartet, shows a man dealing both with grief and with his own issues as a man, husband, and friend. The scenes between Paul and Jim are intense, as they reveal more of their feelings, but their repartee also has some humour (the humour we often see in deeply-felt situations). We learn that both men are going to counseling; in the talkback after the play, Barker mentioned how important it is for men to learn to speak about their emotions, after the silence and fears of previous generations.
There is also a fifth character, an invisible fox, who tells many stories but has lost his own. The animal first appears in a mythic story told by the various characters, a counterpoint to the action; we then “see” a fox invading Liset’s garden, and Lucille begins to believe the creature is a kind of “reincarnation” (or at least a symbol) of her son. Finally, we discover how important the story of this fox has been in the actual lives of Craig and his parents. As the play says, even when you lose your story, other people can hold and tell it for you.
The beautiful, spare set by Shannon Lea Doyle consists of translucent panels set into blue wooden frames, so “inside” and “outside” can be differentiated while flowing into each other. Behind these panels are about 20 white-birch tree trunks, surrounding the characters with nature and a sense of wilderness. (The program notes these are some of the birch trees used originally in Tarragon Theatre’s production of Yaga by Kit Sandler, set design by Joanna Yu) Jennifer Lennon’s subtle but powerful lighting design highlights the various moods and action onstage, as does. Christopher Stanton’s sound design. Isidra Cruz’s costume choices (e.g. colour, fabric) helps create the characters’ identities. Richard Comeau, Canada’s only Indigenous registered fight director, designed the fight scenes, a neat balance between realistic and theatrical.
Talk-backs after a play can be enlightening but can sometimes detract from our “suspension of disbelief.” In this case, the talk-back helped the audience bridge the transition from the play back to “ordinary reality,” and feel more connected to each other as well as to the cast and playwright. One of the actors mentioned that, in rehearsal, they each talked about their own experiences of loss and grief, and then could use their craft to create the play. Members of the cast and crew also showed us small mementos that symbolized their ongoing work as artists. They discussed earlier audience responses, including one teenager who said she had thought of suicide but — until seeing this play– didn’t consider its effects on her family.
Native Earth Performing Arts has existed for 37 years, encouraging, developing, and performing work of the Indigenous community. As Canadians look for ways to find reconciliation and speak truth about our past and present, this company deserves support. It is also good to have the Aki Theatre in the newly-developing Regent Park area. This Is How We Got Here ran from Jan. 26-Feb. 16th. I urge you to watch for future productions.