At the Arts Club Granville Island Stage until October 31, 2015
Posted October 8, 2015
Colorectal cancer are not two words with which you want to begin writing – or reading – a review. But The Waiting Room takes us far beyond a terrifying medical diagnosis into the realm of family, healing and hope. “The people who love us suffer with us and that’s part of the joy of loving,” said John Mann (music, lyrics and subject of The Waiting Room) in a recent interview with The Georgia Straight.
But with book and direction by Mann’s old friend writer/director Morris Panych, The Waiting Room is also, at times, excruciatingly funny. An icon in the Canadian theatre scene, Panych has a diabolical sense of the absurd; just when he has you misty-eyed, he turns things ass-over-tea-kettle and has you laughing at your own willingness to be duped.
Commissioned by the Arts Club four years ago, The Waiting Room chronicles Mann’s 2009 struggle with cancer through a character named J, played by Jonathon Young. Lean and lanky, Young appears to get right in under Mann’s skin. As lead singer for Spirit of the West, Mann has always had a hectic edge, an appearance of imminent implosion that eventually resolves into a huge, face-splitting grin. Young runs with it – literally. Clutching red balloons he gallops long-leggedly across the stage – a gleeful, one-man horse race off stage left, off stage right, right into your heart.
Panych has never been one for kitchen sink realism and The Waiting Room is no exception. C is a nine-year-old, “non-corporeal entity” and as C admits, “non-existent entities are hard to cast”. Panych, however, has found the perfect actor: Grade 12 student Matreya Scarrwener who made her Arts Club debut in last season’s Armstrong’s War. Without Scarrwener’s sparkle and kid-like playfulness to offset J’s early-in-the-play existential terror, the play’s buoyancy would not be so fully realized. She’s like an exuberant, effervescent sprite in a grey hoodie and grey, bow-trimmed toque. We actually feel sort of sorry for C when J doesn’t die. Pure Panych.
Jillian Fargey is L, the school-teacher wife of J. Fargey hits us hard when, after assuring J everything will be alright and he’s wheeled off into surgery, L simply slumps and sits staring, terrified, finally able to let go of her feigned optimism. Fargey’s face and posture signal her character’s true, fearful state.
Peter Anderson, Chris Cochrane and Bonnie Panych fills various roles and under Wendy Gorling’s choreography, they swirl and dance with examining tables, gurneys, chairs, screens and an IV stand across the stage – all very reminiscent of The Overcoat years ago.
Ken MacDonald’s set drew immediate applause on opening night: white waiting room chairs were ‘danced’ on stage by the performers and, after they were all lined up, dozens of surgically white-painted wooden chairs – hardly two alike – descended from the flies. Lit by Gerald King, the effect is stunning against a blue scrim, behind which is John Mann and his band: Brad Gillard, Eric Reed, Allan Rodger and Shari Ulrich. The songs, written by Mann during his medical ordeal, were, he says, therapeutic. They tell the story from “These Are the Instructions” to “Of Mice and Men” and are interspersed between scenes. They are upbeat, ironic, full of the spirit of the west in a sometimes ‘country’, almost hoedown way. Absolutely unforgettable are “Today Is Your Birthday” for its juxtaposition of happiness and humiliation and “Thank You” for its unbounded joy.
J not only learns that those we love suffer with us but he also learns, “We’re all afraid of what’s going to happen but it happens anyway.” That is the truth of our lives. This is a Waiting Room – full of grace, honesty, humour and compassion – you will want to visit. Panych, ever the searing commentator on the human condition, would say we are all already in it.