By Dana Lacey
Crackwalker freaked me out before they’d killed the houselights. At first glance the set was beautiful: a dozen light bulbs hung overhead, sending an eerie but soft glow over everything. First the small details kicked in: a battered couch, balls of newspaper, an old chain-link fence…then the one that’s hardest to miss: a giant, bearded and filthy man wandering slowly back and forth, trenchcoat hanging open, the occasional guttural growl coming from a face hidden beneath a hood. He’ll spend most of the play slumped drunkenly in a corner. This was the Crackwalker, I suppose.
Crackwalker is a revival of a famous play I’ve never seen or heard of. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, it is considered “one of the most tragic plays in Canadian theatre.” It was the first play by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, premiering in 1980 in Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, which is where I saw it performed. Before I went, I skimmed a few reviews from that time: “harrowing”, “intense,” and “takes you to the edge of hell.” Wow. So I knew I wasn’t in for happy-and-shiny, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The premise: Mentally-challenged Theresa (Marie Jones) and her twitchy boyfriend Alan (Rick Jon Egan) struggle to support themselves in the poorest part of Kingston, while trying to keep their feet planted in reality (which proves to be out of their reach.) The mooch off their married friends Joe and Sandy, the ultimate rednecks: Joe cheats, gambles and beats up Sandy, Sandy stabs Joe with her stilettos, they drink, and drink, and so on. Don’t ask me to explain the trench-coated Crackwalker…he was more of a set transition than a metaphor for “the bogeyman who plagues their dreams,” as the playbill says.
The dialogue was the best part: convincingly redneck-canuck–littered with ‘eh?s’ and the occasional hosebag’–it was tight, hilarious and often jarring. I was really impressed by Hannah Miller, who played Sandy, a vulnerable, angry insecure woman who professes her love with lines like “its dogshit when you’re gone.” She could scream “Take off!” without falling victim to the Bob-and-Doug irony that bogs down the second half of the play (stubbies, plaid jackets, fur caps….but hey, its our heritage right?)
Intermission is where I started to fade. The friend I’d brought summed it up nicely: “I’ve liked it so far, but it could be over right now and we wouldn’t miss a thing.” The play was an hour and 45 minutes, but wasn’t engaging enough to deserve that length. The topics explored were of the ‘deep and meaningful’ variety, so I feel guilty admitting I was bored: prostitution, crib death, abuse, mental illness…maybe stuff that was shocking 25 years ago doesn’t have the same effect on my violence-saturated mind?
I’ll admit the odd tear was dragged out in sympathy of a mostly unsympathetic Theresa, but her Canadiana uptalk was more annoying than authentic. Crackwalker offered a gritty and no-holds-barred take on poverty and mental health, but my mind kept wandering, brought back by the occasional great line: “Do you ever start thinking about something, but its ugly? If it was right in front of me I’d beat it to shit, ya know?”, as Alan is driven into madness.
Most of the thinking is left up to the audience, so be prepared to face some tough questions. Don’t expect a happy ending, either. Despite the sleepy second half, the show was worth seeing. Exiting the theatre, I heard murmurs of approval and one honest confession: “man I never want to go to Kingston.”
-Crackwalker is playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
-The show runs until Saturday, October 11, 2008, Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., as well as Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
-Tickets are $20, $15 for students and arts workers. Tuesday are PWYC.
– Tickets are available at the Theatre Passe Muraille box office at 416-504-7429, or online at stagedandconfused.com