The Damage Done, on stage in Toronto, stretches the seams of viability
George F. Walker’s characters are people you wouldn’t normally find at the theatre, although thanks to his decades-long writing career, they are certainly people you find on Toronto stages. Concentrating on the stories of Toronto’s East End neighbourhoods, Walker specializes in the theatre of the marginalized, sometimes returning to favourite characters and stories.
The Damage Done—directed by Ken Gass for Canadian Rep Theatre at The Citadel—is the third play in the story of Bobby (Wes Berger) and Tina (Sarah Murphy-Dyson), whose tempestuous teenage relationship resulted in two daughters, hard times, and a permanent split. In this new volume, the two are older (and maybe a little wiser) but at this point their story has stretched as far as it can go.
The Tina and Bobby cycle began with 1992’s Tough!, and continued in 2013’s Moss Park. Both of these plays explored the beginning of the relationship, with only two years passing between them. The Damage Done is set 18 years after Tough!, when social worker Tina, after functioning mostly as a single parent, finds another relationship over and burnout imminent.
The central question becomes whether lovable loser Bobby will be coerced into accepting necessary responsibility, or whether he’ll fall back on his old tricks of escapism, panic attacks, and scams.
You don’t have to have seen the previous two plays to understand the characters or their backstory. It adds a layer, but newly discovering these characters means you’re less familiar with the similar beats (too similar) their cyclical antagonism tends to tread.
The two are still meeting at their favourite park bench; perhaps in a symbolic nod to this later stage of their relationship, the floor is covered with fallen autumn leaves, and a crack in the window at the back of the set (manchild Bobby tosses pebbles at it) suggests long-term, irreparable fissures.
The pacing is very quick, and Walker’s dialogue always sparks. However, varied emotional beats come thick and fast, to the point where there’s occasional emotional whiplash as the parameters readjust. There are passages of fascinating, genuine connection between characters and audience, and there are parts that feel detached, like a playwriting exercise.
The actors are animated, with Murphy-Dyson’s brittle energy providing a nice contrast to Berger’s laidback charm; we can see the drive that both rescues her and burns her out, while his slowness helps him cope but prevents him from seeing beyond himself. It’s fun to watch the two spar, but secrets are spilled so easily that Bobby seems exceptionally dense, and real change unlikely.
The play’s familiar world leaves it open to meta-commentary; Bobby’s playwriting aspirations lead to jokes about the theatre audience and what stories will sell. Walker makes fun of his own penchant for writing about the “angry and desperate,” as Tina doubts its marketability (though it’s certainly served Walker’s career well). He also pokes at the audience, asking us why we’d want to see this. It’s all funny, but feels like pandering.
Is this the end for Bobby and Tina? Who knows. Maybe Bobby’s play will be the fourth installment of the story of the couple-who-isn’t. In any case, like Bobby’s permanent torch for Tina, Walker hasn’t moved on from these characters. It’s a relationship that’s seductive, but one that is stuck in a rut, and has run its course.
- The Damage Done plays at The Citadel (304 Parliament Street) until December 11, 2016.
- Performances run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:30PM and Sundays at 2:30PM.
- There are no performances on November 30 and December 1
- Tickets are $21-32 and can be purchased online or by calling 416-946-3065
- Sundays are PWYC at the door (reserved seats in advance $26)
- The play features swearing, mentions of drugs and other adult subject matter.
Photo of Wes Berger and Sarah Murphy-Dyson by Michael Cooper