Review: The Dreamer Examines His Pillow (JR Theatre)

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the dreamer examines his pillow explores marred and broken relationships at Toronto’s Box Theatre

JR Theatre is presenting the dreamer examines his pillow at The Box Theatre, a small studio space with a lot of gritty character – think exposed pipes and painted-over brick. Since this is another 1980’s John Patrick Shanley play produced in an unconventional space, like Danny & The Deep Blue Sea which I reviewed in November, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons. Both plays feature working class characters trapped in their circumstances but while in Danny & The Deep Blue Sea two people meet and struggle with their histories and situations to let themselves fall in love, in the dreamer examines his pillow we see people whose relationships are old and twisted and torn and no longer resemble love at all.

The show begins with Donna furiously bursting into Tommy’s dingy apartment. Tommy dumped her a while back and in the meantime has been fooling around with her sixteen year old sister. During the course of their argument Tommy tries to kiss her and expresses that he wants her back, but he is also unrepentant and, at times, cruel.

When Donna leaves she threatens to go to her father and tell him to give Tommy a beating. The next scene is between Donna and her father, an alcoholic former painter who sold all his paintings about a year after Donna’s mother died and has been living off that money since. He treated Donna’s mother poorly when she was alive, and he treats Donna poorly now. But when Donna asks him big questions – aiming to figure out if she and Tommy are repeating the pattern of her father and her mother – Dad does listen, and does answer thoroughly and honestly.

The third and final scene is Dad confronting Tommy. I really like the neatness of this triangular format: three characters, three scenes, each scene depicting a unique relationship between two of the characters – but it was the middle one that really stood out for me. Jada Rifkin, who plays Donna, and Scott McCulloch playing Dad, had a great dynamic and gave strong performances together. I found the relationship between Tommy and Donna less believable, primarily because there needs to be a strong sexual chemistry between the two and I didn’t feel it.

Part of the challenge may have been the alley staging. The long and narrow play space meant that if two characters were facing each other either one of their faces was obscured, or they had to be very far apart. This worked well for the push and pull of the paternal relationship because when the two were physically close they could both look out, since keeping faces within kissing distance is not the kind of intimacy you expect (or want to expect) from a father-daughter relationship. Donna and Tommy’s push-pull felt more perfunctory. I felt Donna’s wrath toward Tommy, but I didn’t feel lust, or animal magnetism; I didn’t know why Donna kept coming back.

Shanley can be hard to play because his rough-talking low-class characters slip into dreamy monologues that can seem incongruous if not directed and acted with grace and skill. My companion found it difficult to maintain interest during these surreal speeches, and I found they varied, but worked most often in the capable hands of Scott McCulloch.

Class is not as present as an overriding oppressor in this play as it is in Danny & The Deep Blue Sea, though it is still there as an undercurrent. the dreamer examines his pillow is more about the psychological issue of parents-as-role-models; that we learn from a very young age, and throughout our lives, how to love based on our parents. Which means if they’re not good at it, we can be pretty screwed.

Despite my mixed feelings about this production, I still think it is well worth seeing, and I’m glad that young indie theatres in the city are taking on such complex and serious work as John Patrick Shanley.

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Photo of Jada Rifkin and Scott McCulloch by Anthony R. Taylor