Review: The Runner (Tarragon)

Photo of Gord Rand in The Runner by Cylla von TiedemannPowerful, complex remount of Dora-winning play arrives in Toronto

***NOTE: The rest of run has been cancelled to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19

In The Runner, a remount of the 2019 Dora winner for Outstanding New Play presented by Tarragon Theatre, Jacob (Gord Rand) wakes up in a liminal space of shadow and spotlight, confused, unable to remember what has happened to him. As the pieces fall back into place, the space appears more and more to be one of judgment. Jacob attempts to remember, and to justify his life and actions, while constantly in motion on the eerie white stripe of a treadmill that bisects the darkness.

Jacob is a “runner” for ZAKA, an Israeli Orthodox Jewish organization whose members pick up the pieces of the dead for proper religious burial, and act as quasi-paramedics for those left alive until further help arrives. They see the impact of horrific accidents and intentional acts of violence every day.

As such, they have a “do no harm” medical ethos – but who gets treated and in what order is sometimes more politically complicated than that. Forced to make an ethical choice in treating a Palestinian girl who may or may not have killed an Israeli soldier, Jacob finds his world upended.

As Jacob in the Torah saw a ladder from Earth to the realm of the angels, so does this Jacob spend his days suspended between life and death. As Jacob dreamed of a land promised to him and his descendants, this Jacob, an immigrant to Israel from England with his family, wonders what it means to forcibly claim that land as birthright.

The Runner presents a nuanced, tightly-written picture of the wrenching internal conflict that many Jews, myself included, feel when we look at Israel and Palestine, and shows it from multiple different angles. It feels uncomfortably real. It’s best when it’s sketching a very specific portrait of Jacob, an imperfect, complex man with a good heart who is constantly working on himself, attempting to unlearn cultural baggage. It very occasionally crosses the line into broad, more obvious moralizing, but, for the most part, Jacob is a man, not a symbol.

We see how steeped he is in his upbringing and surroundings of an “Us Vs. Them” war, as loaded words seep into his monologue, some of which he corrects, and some of which he doesn’t. Words like “innocent and sweet” are associated with a young person of one background, and “polluted” with another. Unearthing remains of mothers and children in a mass grave in Ukraine, Jacob asks what kind of person could calmly stand and put bullets through their skulls; soon, he experiences that type of dehumanization perpetrated by his own colleagues.

Gord Rand gives a powerful, focused performance as Jacob. He clearly yearns to be close to others, but finds himself kept at arm’s length through a combination of his more liberal beliefs and other identities. The piece is intense, a taut 65 minutes, and, like the treadmill, never stops running, though there are matched peaks and valleys to both. Loud noises (Alexander MacSween) are primed to shock and disorient both Jacob and the audience in moments of crisis; the stark set (Gillian Gallow), fog, and near-total darkness breached by directed shafts of light (Bonnie Beecher) are very effective in creating a tense atmosphere.

One thing that has always appealed to me most about Jewish theology as I was taught it is the ambiguity about the existence of an afterlife, particularly the absence of a specific Hell, and the focus on life on earth. Without a definitive final reward or punishment, actions are supposed to be performed because they are the right thing to do – things one’s conscience can live with in the here and now.

Though we don’t have all the rungs of Jacob’s ladder at the beginning, The Runner doesn’t depend on the twist or shock of finding them out; instead, it’s the journey of one man wrestling with himself in the moment, forever attempting to move forward, forward, forward.


  • The Runner plays at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman Ave.) until March 29, 2020.  (***NOTE: The rest of run has been cancelled to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19)
  • Shows are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00PM, with Saturday and Sunday 2:30PM matinees, and some Wednesday and Thursday 1:00PM matinees.
  • Tickets are $20-65 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-531-1827, or in person at the Theatre Box Office.

Photo of Gord Rand by Cylla von Tiedemann

One thought on “Review: The Runner (Tarragon)”

  1. What an excellent and informative review. I look forward to seeing the play along with my guests. Thank you. R.V.

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