Lela & Co., on stage at Toronto’s Theatre Centre, is a powerful story of abuse
When Lela (Jenna Harris), the protagonist of Cordelia Lynn’s searing drama Lela & Co., (currently being presented by Discord and Din Theatre at The Theatre Centre), turned thirteen in her small village, her father ordered “the Messiah of Cakes” for her birthday party. The night before the party, a small strip of pink icing went missing, and Lela has been blamed for it ever since.
The story of the cake is told and retold, ever exaggerated, throughout Lela’s harrowing life of subjugation, as she experiences war, abuse, and forced prostitution. A tiny slice of life, it’s nevertheless a symbol both of what happens to a girl who steps out of line, and how the lies we tell ourselves to survive eventually become the truth. Lela, in direct address to the audience, wants us to know the real truth – and what a fascinating and stark truth it is.
Jenna Harris is a force to be reckoned with in this play, which demands she be at its centre for the entire 105-minute running time. Resolute in her convictions, her emotional strength is at odds with the nightgown-like costume she wears; it emphasizes a certain birdlike physical fragility that’s easily exploited. She easily held my attention throughout as she cycled through hope and terror, anguish and anger. (Reviewer’s note: I know Jenna from outside my scope as a reviewer, but this is my objective opinion).
I wanted to punch Graham Cuthbertson in the face for 90% of the play, and I mean that as the highest compliment. With a couple of small costuming elements, he manages to embody four different male characters distinctly, each a failure of empathy in his own right. There’s the father who prizes the concept of gratitude over his own daughter’s wellbeing, the predatory older brother-in-law, the sadistically controlling husband-cum-pimp, and the shy, boyish foreign peacekeeper.
Making excuses, they all tell stories to deny or cope with their actions. For example, an argument between Lela and her husband over whether their first meeting was in a café or on the beach is all the gaslighting we need to see the abuse that’s coming. Whether kind or cruel, all value their own stories and their own security—particularly financial security—over Lela’s life. They even consistently interrupt her in the telling of her own story, something that’s likely to be familiar to many women watching the show.
One of Lela & Co.’s strengths and weaknesses is its deliberate unspecified foreignness. Though it is based on a true story, we don’t know where it takes place, besides a war-torn country where English is not the first language. Even Lela’s sisters are only given initials, rather than names.
This gives the story a universal aspect, but is also mildly irritating, as if the writer couldn’t commit, or was afraid to represent a specific nationality. The reason the show still works, though, is the specificity of Lela’s experience and her eloquence in telling it. The writing is lyrical and expressive, but also sharp and jarring.
In The Theatre Centre’s small studio, the show is presented in the round for maximum effect, featuring a raised central stage adorned only by a long sheet. It’s a simple but effective way to represent the way Lela’s life becomes increasingly closed-off by boundaries, going from a small village to the back room “bedroom” where she’s sold to countless men, to the even smaller world she creates for the child in her arms.
The creepy (though somewhat repetitive) sound design is all screams, air-raid sirens and slamming doors. The lighting often makes the stage look like an interrogation room, but it’s the audience being interrogated. Lela implicates the world’s silence over and over with deliberate eye contact, at one point even declaring she’d kill us for our inaction if she could.
Lela & Co. reminds us that we can’t have our cake and eat it, too, calling ourselves good people and yet doing nothing to directly relieve suffering when we see it. It’s a call to action from a singular voice, worth all the discomfort it causes.
- Lela & Co. runs until October 8, 2017 at The Theatre Centre Studio (1115 Queen St. West)
- Shows run Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturday-Sunday at 2pm, with shows at 8:30pm October 6-7, and 2:30pm October 7-8.
- Student matinees run September 27th at noon and October 4th at 11am.
- Tickets are $15-30, with PWYC tickets Sunday available in-person two hours before the performance.
- Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416-538-0988.
- Warning: This show features adult content, including strong language and non-graphic depictions of rape of a minor.
Photo of Jenna Harris and Graham Cuthbertson by Dahlia Katz