Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: (Stratford) The Thrill

Lucy Peacock (photo by Don Dixon)

We Are Not Dead Yet
The Thrill stumbles along its way to poignancy
by Stuart Munro

Who has the right to live, and who has the right to die? More importantly – who has the right to choose? These are the challenging and difficult questions raised by Judith Thompson’s new play, The Thrill, making its world première at the Stratford Festival this year.

Inspired by the life and work of disability rights activist, Harriet Johnson, The Thrill follows the last few months in the life of Elora (Lucy Peacock), herself a disability rights lawyer and activist; and of Julian (Nigel Bennett), a right-to-die educator and best-selling author. The two meet, and the result is different than anything one might expect.

Yet despite a somewhat clumsy text, I found myself in tears by the end of the play.

It is Lucy Peacock who carries this production. Her physical transformation into the wheelchair-bound Elora, living with a neuromuscular disease, is nothing short of miraculous, and her command of both the text and the stage held the audience’s attention at every turn. Her scenes with Nigel Bennett are the real heart and soul of this work as the two struggle with their opposing opinions and mutual love and respect for one another. In the wake of these two, both Robert Persichini as Francis (Elora’s caregiver) and Patricia Collins as Hannah (Julian’s mother) both get a bit lost.

To be fair, I’m don’t think it’s entirely their fault. Thompson’s text, while compelling, isn’t very carefully plotted out – the relationship between Elora and Julian rises and falls at an incredibly fast pace, and both Francis and Hannah don’t appear to have much purpose; Thompson suggests in her author’s notes that Hannah is meant to show the hypocritical side of Julian’s right-to-die attitude as he keeps his mother alive in a care home, though this never clearly comes across in the play itself – Julian’s position is far more complicated than that.

Yet despite a somewhat clumsy text, I found myself in tears by the end of the play. The Thrill, like all good theatre, presents the very hardest of questions without asking them outright, and without ever offering the hint of an easy answer. The right to choose to die is, as Thompson puts it, one of those Unspeakable Conversations that we are all too afraid to have. Yet as you watch this play, I have no doubt you’ll find your opinion on it confirmed, questioned, and transformed all at once.

And that is the hallmark of a great piece of theatre – something that provokes thought and conversation on the hardest of topics. In different hands, The Thrill would almost certainly fall flat. But thanks to Ms. Peacock, Mr. Bennett, and director Dean Gabourie, it calls on all of us to question the values we hold most dear.

The Thrill is at the Stratford Festival to September 22

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