Ian Lake and Colin Mercer (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The Sacrosanct Sphere by Zoe Erwin-Longstaff
Set up like an office furniture showroom, all in muted artichoke and beige, the Tarragon Mainspace was arranged as an alley, which is theatre-speak for audience on either side of the stage. This requires that we encroach on the world of the play in order to take our seats – a movement, common enough, though it still somehow feels like a violation. But, while we traipsed across, one area remained unalloyed. At centre stage there was a perfect circle, an orb of seraphic light. This space, the healing circle, intimidates even the four actors at first; they deliver thoughtful monologues at its perimeter, basking in its warm light, but never stepping in. Then, all of a sudden, the narrative lurches forward, vulnerabilities reveal themselves, and before long characters aren’t so much stepping in as stomping across or collapsing in defeat, in this once sacrosanct sphere.
The action begins with different characters relaying their first encounters with the police. Whether it was one of reassurance: a rural cop coming to fix a broken window, embarrassment: teenage girls having their wrists slapped for swapping price tags, or deep frustration: a ruined prom night and lost sexual opportunity -- these skirmishes are familiar enough. But Joan MacLeod, the playwright, could hardly have known how eerily prescient her play would be to Torontonians in the fall of 2013. Fresh in our minds is Sammy Yatim, the teenage boy off his meds, who was struck by eight bullets and then tasered during a confrontation with Toronto police this past July.
Things don’t quite escalate that severely in MacLeod’s story, but the parallels remain uncanny. Connor (Collin Mercer), already a drop-out from the University of Calgary by Thanksgiving of his first semester, has just started a job distributing posters for a student painting company. It’s apparent to his mother, Sharon (Susan Coyne), that Connor is retreating socially, but it isn’t until an incident on the skytrain that it’s clear her son is struggling with mental illness. Agitated and clearly frightened, Connor brandishes his rolled up posters and swings at a cop, Dan (Ian Lake), who forcibly restrains Connor, pushes him to the ground and ends up breaking his jaw.
You can imagine the horror of an overprotective mom, trying desperately to deal with her son’s anxieties, and now on a crusade against the cops. What Sharon doesn’t know is that Dan shares many of the same issues at home with his wife (Michelle Monteith) and their newborn baby, as she deals with what he labels “hormones, you know postpartum stuff.”
And so the real issue of the play emerges: how we deal with mental illness, both institutionally and personally. Particularly agonizing is Sharon, who desperately grasps for any shard of good news, who diligently speaks through the door to an unresponsive son, who is tirelessly patient through every “fuck off” and “you don’t get it”, and who does all this stricken by grief for her son whose health, she knows, will haunt him through life.
Richard Rose’s staging lends the play a seamless quality, as attention shifts from one dyad to another. The other characters remain in the shadows, positioned as spectators forced to consider the action. Both he and MacLeod treat each character with a deep empathy. Indeed, the portrait of mental illness is both mournful and haunting, but not without comic relief and rays of hopefulness. Its timeliness contributes to a conversation about private illness, public brutality and learning how to heal.