Toronto play tackles the right to die, but could use more character development
A Better Place, onstage now at Factory Theatre and produced by Lily Rose Productions, looks at the issue of end-of-life decision-making under a terminal condition. The protagonist of the play is a 55 year old widow named Stella (Kris Langille) who is active in her bowling and Catholic communities, and just beginning to date a new man (Edward Heeley). Everything is looking up for Stella – until she is diagnosed with ALS.
The disease progresses rapidly: soon she’s in a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank, no longer able to bowl or sing in the church choir. Her new boyfriend, having gone through the death of his late wife and unable to cope with another such experience, departs for Florida. At some point, Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms.
I’m just not sure what point that was. The basis for this show should be fertile ground for creating dramatic tension, but in my opinion it misses every opportunity. When her priest (Isai Rivera Blas ) comes to dissuade her, she tells him that she has made her peace with God. But when did that happen? How did that happen? What was the thought process to reconcile her Catholicism, which condemns anything remotely similar to suicide, and her determination to end her suffering? The audience was privy to none of that.
Stella asks her daughter, Kate, a doctor (Rachel Cairns) to help her die when her own doctor (Jillian Rees-Brown) will not. Kate, understandably, does not want to, but the disagreement is extremely understated for what is literally a matter of life and death. The most emotive moment in the whole piece was a fight between Kate and her husband (Ian Ronningen), regarding how workaholism enabled her denial of both her mother’s suffering and their marriage problems. Both actors dug into this scene with such relish that it underlined the lack of conflict in the rest of the piece.
A scene of unsubtle symbolism involving a bird stands in for any moment of catharsis for Kate near the end. The script and direction seemed too interested in having one scene follow the next, instead of character arcs and contemplation of the topic, leaving the actors unmoored.
An even more unfortunate aspect of the show is the character of Chris (Ngabo Nabea), whose sole function is to be a young black man who can get Stella an illegal gun.
My companion for the evening thought that the set and costuming were too bland, that they did not give her a strong impression of time and place. The production team did try to do something interesting with the set as Stella nears her death, when pieces are turned around to surround the stage with blank grey walls. This would have worked better in an overall more stylized production, but in one that was otherwise realistic, it struck me as heavy-handed.
I commend playwright Ramona Baillie for tackling this tough subject, and the basic plot structure was solid. I would enjoy seeing a play that broaches the issue with more consideration of emotion, theatricality and the philosophical implications of dying, as they say, with dignity.
- A Better Place is onstage at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) until December 11th
- Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 2 pm
- Tickets are $25, or $20 for Artsworkers
- Purchase tickets at 416-504-9971 or online
Photo of Catherine Gardner, Kris Langille, Rachel Cairn by Bruce Peters