Bitter Medicine (Theatre Lab) 2014 SummerWorks Review


There is a fashion recently, in solo performance, for shows that I can only describe as “I have an offbeat relative” – a pregnant brother, a gay father, and in Bitter Medicine, a schizophrenic brother. SummerWorks has often done well with these shows, but this one, based on a graphic memoir, fell entirely flat for me. Neither storytelling nor proper acting, by the end I wasn’t sure why I was listening to this relatively factual recitation of a man’s experience with (as it turns out) two schizophrenic brothers.

Sometimes, what works in text doesn’t make the leap to performance very well. And so, what I imagine must be an affecting book – it certainly won many awards – just doesn’t have the narrative arc I feel a stage play demands.

Brian Smith plays Clem (the non-schizophrenic brother) with the kind of measured and tender affect you’d expect from a guy who found it in himself to stay present and connected with a brother who had a great deal of difficulty in a neurotypical world. An hour of measured and tender, or even a lifetime of it, is unfortunately just not the stuff of a moving show. Maybe especially this is true of a lifetime condensed into an hour. I liked the Clem that Smith presented plenty; he seemed like a lovely fellow. But it became hard for me to care after a few minutes.

In particular, I wish the show had taken more time, even a lot more, with the discussion of Oliver’s talents or gifts instead of the long laundry list of his symptoms. I would have been interested to know, from Oliver’s perspective, how the world around him failed to make enough space for him to participate in it with his uncommonness – an interrogation of the value of “normal.” But when those things came, they were brief and very much through the lens of the neurotypical Clem, who has done a lot to help his brother feel more normal. I wondered whether Oliver wanted that, or what he struggled with, or how he overcame the struggles. It may have been a rawer or rougher journey, but it seems like a more compelling lens than the one we got.

I find it difficult to come to the end of this review without much positive to say about the show I saw. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the show, and that the men involved have lived through a great deal with considerable grace. In this case, however, I wish I’d stayed home and read the book.


Bitter Medicine plays at the Lower Ossington Theatre Studio (100A Ossington Ave) as part of the SummerWorks festival.

Remaining performances

Thursday August 7, 6:30pm
Friday August 8, 7:30pm
Saturday August 9, 10:00pm
Sunday August 10, 5:00pm
Monday August 11, 4:30pm
Friday August 15, 5:30pm
Saturday August 16, 8:00pm
Sunday August 17, 5:00pm

All individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at, by phone at 416-907-0468, or in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) August 5th-17th from 10AM – 7PM (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee)

Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows

Artwork by Oliver Martini provided by the company.