Friday, January 16, 2015



Anyone who has spent time in a hospital waiting room, knowing that the next words you hear from a doctor could be cause for celebration or heartbreak, can relate to the powerful plot lines and unforgettable characters created by Diane Flacks in her new play currently running at Tarragon Theatre. Waiting Room is a proverbial roller coaster of emotion that tackles very difficult and challenging questions about medical ethics, gender relations, and conflicted intimacies in the workplace. 

Flacks has woven two major relationships into a single script, and if that was not enough to take on, she has laced the narrative with even more thematic elements including female genital mutilation, Alzheimer's, and Cancer. Director Richard Greenblatt takes this deftly written, plot heavy drama, and presents a powerful, tightly packed series of inter-connected scenes. A succession of fraught encounters lay out basic information and depict the actual experience of waiting, wondering, and hoping against all hope that there will be a happy ending for someone. Caught in the web of varied humanity that passes through any given waiting room over the course of a tumultuous and painful life process, six characters attempt to flesh out their concerns and motivations without quite enough time for any of them to be fully realized with the breadth these very serious subjects require.

The candid humour and frequent one-liner repartee that Flacks has immense talent for relieves the dominant gravitas of this two hour drama, and reveals her great skill for complex story and character creation. And yet there are times when the many intersecting scenes feel more suited to a televised mini series on HBO, or a film, where the depth of each story can be interrogated further. Some of the decisions made by the medical staff seem rushed and over loaded with personal connections that do not have enough time to breathe over the course of two acts. 

Performances by Ari Cohen, Michelle Monteith, Jane Spidell, Jordan Pettle, Jenny Young, and Warona Setshwaelo are consistently strong and well developed, with standout emotional moments for Pettle and Monteith nearing the end of the play. Cohen has a particularly challenging role to fill as he runs the gamut from cold, authoritarian patriarch to Alzheimer's victim, without enough time to fully examine or satisfy his single-minded take on life, death, and the  complex role of medical intervention. His range is impressive, and frequently bittersweet, as he grapples with mortality in a simultaneously composed, manic, and manly manner.

Michelle Monteith's portrayal of the grieving mother is passionate and layered
and marks the ending with a cathartic, much needed explosion and reprieve.
Jordan Pettle, as the well-meaning yet emotionally fraught father searching for hope in the midst of despair, gives a highly charged performance that never detracts from Monteith's pivotal role as the maternal force connected to her child in a way Pettle's character can never fully experience. The gender balance in the play often tips toward the women as complex nurturing characters in conflict with their matter of fact, frequently antagonistic male cohorts, providing yet another thematic strain that raises questions about traditional male/female heteronormative conjugal conflicts.

Jane Spidell, as a key secondary character, is a lively, brash, and thoroughly engaging presence as she represents an external through line for the suffering parents of a sick child. But her story seems, at times, under developed and unclear due to the formidable scope the playwright has taken on. Flacks has a mighty project here that could do well as a major film or television project akin to Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, the televised medical drama based on Vincent Lam's acclaimed short story collection. 

Jane Spidell & Ari Cohen
Warona Setshwaelo's performance is a worthy and well crafted foil to Cohen's faltering masculine prowess. But her character construction falls prey to the plot excess of multi-storylines, and never fully develops. This may be part and parcel of the experience of being in a waiting room and connecting briefly with people one doesn't know very well - people who will be relaying an abundance of dense, difficult medical information under very stressful circumstances. We depend on them for help and vital information but we barely know them. Flacks handles the dialogue and information very well, and yet one wonders whether some of the characters become somewhat tokenistic due to time/narrative constraints.

Jenny Young as a medical practitioner compromised by intimacy in the workplace delivers a strong guarded performance that suits the tense, torn persona of a strong woman in love with a weakening man. She gives her character both integrity and grace as she goes through the motions of making devastating decisions for someone not in the habit of taking life-altering advice from anyone.

As it stands, as live drama, Waiting Room is a powerful and moving look at illness and coping strategies, and raises many thought provoking questions about the quality of life and death in surprisingly entertaining ways. But at the end of the day, and the end of the play, one may feel that they have missed out on the essence of sitting and waiting and hoping - and waiting and waiting and hoping and hoping and hoping - that the very unique and painful experience of a hospital waiting room actually brings to one's life. 
This multi-storied script tackles diversity of experience through it's site-specific title and it's primary concerns. But it sometimes misses the frequently quirky essence of the quick, sorrowful, at times awkward - even hostile - connections that often occur between perfect strangers who become intimately connected for brief encounters when the lives of their loved ones are hanging in the balance. This kind of interaction could be material for another play, another film, another televised episode - and yet it seems to lie buried somewhere at the heart of Diane Flack's very  poignant drama.
Jordan Pettle, Ari Cohen, Michelle Monteith


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