Piece by Piece (playing in the Next Stage Festival) examines the stories of three women who find themselves hanging out, for one reason or another, in a hospital ICU. Jessie has had a string of miscarriages, and is grappling with a marriage that may not be able to hold this burden; Barb lost her husband to Alzheimer’s years ago, but is still obligated to bring this now-unfamiliar man to his medical appointments; Steffie’s mother died a few weeks ago, but she keeps returning to the waiting area, finding comfort in the familiar sights, smells, people and energy of critical care.
Together, they form a sort of support group, providing community and structure to one another’s lives: Barb gets to make friends and see people for the first time in years; Jessie gets to escape from her own funk and see different perspectives; Steffie meets some adults who take the high-school student seriously and take an interest in her well-being. Playwright Alison Lawrence connects them together and examines parallels and contrasts between their experiences in the awful, fluorescent twilight of this medical ward.
Coming out of Piece by Piece, I was frustrated and somewhat disappointed. The whole thing felt like one enormous monologue: even the dialogues were really just monologues. I was squirming in my seat, hoping desperately that someone would do something, rather than just talk about their feelings, then talk about their feelings to someone else, then talk about their feelings to the audience, then talk about talking about their feelings… I found the emotions sincere and moving, but this was such a huge dose — feel-bomb after feel-bomb — that it got cloying, and then irritating.
My guest, on the other hand, was bawling; moved to tears and sniffles by the emotional power and thrust of what is unquestionably a tightly-staged little drama. She described it to me as one of the most powerful experiences she’d had in a theatre in a long time: even as someone who had very few experiences in common with these characters, she was able to sink her teeth right into these realistically-drawn personas, which built her up to an immense emotional payoff at the ending.
As we discussed it, she suggested — and I think she’s right — that maybe I’m just spoiled. Maybe I’ve spent too long watching too many monologues, and maybe my irritation is a tummyache rather than justifiable frustration. She certainly wasn’t the only person who found this show profoundly moving, nor was she the only one dabbing her eyes.
The good news is that we agreed on the stand-outs in the cast. Virgilia Griffith does exceptional work with Steffie, perfectly capturing the standoffishness of a teenager while remaining engaging and accessible — and appropriately sympathetic. This is heavier lifting than it looks, but Griffith carries it well. We were also impressed by Linda Goranson’s turn as Barb, a tough old cookie who demands a lot of an actor: Barb must be the strongest character in the show, and also perpetually on the verge of utter surrender. Goranson provides Barb with the spine needed to manage this contortion, and the result is very impressive.
And while the men generally don’t get as much to do as the women, keep an eye on Terrence Bryant’s Frank. It’s hard work to play a character this confused, muddled and unwell — and to play it so seamlessly as Bryant does.
- All Next Stage Theatre Festival performances are at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets for Piece by Piece are $15.
- Showtimes and ticket information are available at fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival/
Photograph of (L->R) Mary Francis Moore and Virgilia Griffith provided by the company.