Electric performance anchors this revival of Vitals, now on stage in Toronto
Vitals, by Outside the March playwright-in-residence Rosamund Small, has received several productions and many accolades since its debut, including the 2014 Dora Awards for Outstanding Production and New Play (Independent Theatre category). New theatre company Theatre Born Between devotes its premiere production to the one-woman show, presented in stripped-down form at The Commons Theatre. Thanks to a strong performer and some unique staging elements, the company proves that this urgent script doesn’t need an elaborate production to remain vital.
Vitals centres on the experiences of Anna, a tough, no-nonsense paramedic who eventually gets stretched beyond her ability to be objectively good at her job. Playwright Small shaped the story from interviews with EMTs, creating a singular story of vignettes that weaves together themes of the potential irredeemable nature of humanity (particularly when compared to our pets), how we process our experiences of trauma, and an ultimate shared desire just to be saved.
This is a play that features painful, difficult and visceral stories of horrifying acts suffered by people and animals. Audience members are informed that they are welcome to leave if they feel overwhelmed (though not to return), and mental health resources are available in the lobby. Most of the scenes, however, are described rather than shown, so the horror here is all in the mind’s eye.
That’s not to say that the show is a chore to watch or humourless; the script is sharp, smart, and propulsive, and there are doses of humour. It’s primarily of the gallows variety — sometimes quite literally, when it comes to a suicide who hung himself from the tallest tree in High Park. Other moments, such as Anna’s frustrated observations about impatient Toronto drivers and pedestrians who flag her down like a cab, also serve to break the tension.
Vitals depends on its strong script, but also needs an actor who’s up to the high-pressure task of delivery. Luckily, Lauren Wolanski does an electric job with the role of Anna. In her introduction to the play, Small stresses the importance of not leading with or having the role overwhelmed by trauma, and Wolanski gives us a multifaceted, nuanced and unusual character, mixing outspoken toughness and sarcasm with compassion, and aloofness with an ultimate vulnerability. It might be nice to know a little more about her outside of her job experiences, but one gets the feeling that there isn’t very much about her that’s not linked to her job, which is why incompetence is so quickly linked to despair.
This production will draw inevitable comparisons to Outside the March’s original and recent mountings of the show. This was my first experience with the play, which is given a much more modest, traditional presentation than the original company’s site-specific production. Still, the script and acting are given a chance to shine through less adornment, with the understated staging choices assisting. Wolanski rearranges three stacking chairs to create a sense of place, and later, to demonstrate a buildup of nervous energy. A dripping white paste substituting for blood is evocative without being sensationalist. Quick, jarring transitions with flashing lights and sirens, however, sometimes felt a little overly jerky and abruptly cued, even though that might have been the intent.
Anna’s use of chalk on the black floor to highlight moments and numbers is very effective, particularly in a scene where she draws a crude map of the Toronto subway system, highlighting every place she’s had a particularly memorable call. I found myself wishing director Bryn Kennedy had made even more use of this device as a motif. Finally, a staging surprise at the end is both adorable and a little — or a lot — manipulative, but after a harrowing 70 minutes, it feels okay to bask in the sweetness.
The pace and length of Vitals are reminiscent of an emergency call, where minutes and even seconds can make the difference between recovery and clean-up. Much like most of Anna’s patients, it’s worthy of revival.
- Vitals plays at The Commons Theatre (587a College Street) until November 25th, 2018.
- Shows run Wednesday-Sunday at 8:00PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00PM.
- Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or at the door. PWYC/Discounted tickets are available for the Sunday November 18th matinee and Wednesday November 21st evening shows.
- The venue is not accessible (two flights of stairs at entryway).
- Content Warning: Includes strong language graphic descriptions of suicide, death, sexual assault, and injury; may not be suitable for younger audiences.
Photo of Lauren Wolanski provided by the company