Thursday, November 24, 2016

George F. Walker's The Damage Done

photos by Michael Cooper

To have seen Tough not so long ago - George F. Walkers first instalment of a dramaturgical triptych, begun in the 1990’s - through the contemporary lens of Ken Gass’ Canadian Rep Theatre, was a refreshing look at the ways in which an older script can begin to reflect epic concerns in a planetary card game of towering losses, frightening trumps, and hard won gains. One upping himself through the use of two decades of aging, maturing, and complex bitterness, Walker’s characters in his newest creation - The Damage Done - have given in to just about everything - except love. Love comes their way and they take it. And from a Marxist, perhaps decaying socialist perspective, filtered through capitalism, well, why the hell not? It’s there for the taking by two physically beautiful people who use their youth and their desperation to make their way through a stultifying world fraught by the allure of drugs, sex, and the agitating numbness of poverty - and relative wealth. 

In last summer’s re-mount of Tough Ken Gass turned a three person play into a multi character ensemble in order to reveal a kind of diversity that struggled but ultimately shone through. It was an admirable attempt that showcased the talents of a large cast of young actors who drove the socially relevant points home in an intense, refracted way within versatile walls of a minimalist set inhabited by the energy of youth, sagging hopefulness, and teenage lust. Eighteen years later, The Damage Done, a two person play is just that - two people onstage for seventy-five minutes trying to sort it all out - all that has happened over nearly two decades - and how to proceed. 

Sarah Murphy and Wes Berger

The set has a stark autumnal flare that serves the purpose very well. And yet, with the ghost of Tough wandering through the space, one cannot help but wonder what this production might have been like if Gass had chosen to use an ensemble instead of a two character format. Fracturing the naturalism into frayed character portrayals, in order to show facets rather than single, finely cut snapshots of two tragicomic characters in search of a play within a play - in search of lives beyond the ones they have already lived - well, it’s complicated. But Tough showed audiences that it can be done. The Damage Done is of course play - a play closer to a sitcom than a drama, yet wobbling a bit uneasily between the two forms. 

Walker has always been a master of this double edged sword, and in The Damage Done there are many fine moments, and a wonderful balance between the voices of two genders at odds with each other - and yet attracted somehow to the unease their roles have demanded of them. They play of sex and gender in a stagey, guarded, infrequently explosive manner - that could have added a touch of libido here and there to heighten the stakes. The performance are strong and yet the sex, although present, seems to live in the past.

Sarah Murphy as Tina possesses a direct, powerful command of the breakneck pacing the quick dialogue demands. Her emotional moments are strong and moving, and yet they tend to belie to some degree the rapidity of her more manic, conversional  strategies. In general, everything needs to be picked up a little. There is a bit too much room to breathe at times during the vocal and emotional pacing. When Tina breaks down, given her recent forays into self examination and a need to recover, her persona might fare better within a less weepy, more layered palette. Crying and resisting crying, simultaneously, could strengthen the colours of her need. Murphy does sob and break down very well, but needs a bit more of the uneven quality common to this kind of pathology. And when she has to physically joust with her ex it is just a case of slightly bungled stage business that needs to be stepped up - faster quicker and far more frenetic than the slow clumsy threat of a kick in the balls that occurred on opening night.

Wes Berger as Bobby parallels Murphy’s powerful and studied performance with many charming moments. His emotional narrative is not written with the same levels as Tina’s. Bobby seems to have mellowed into a bowling loving, aspiring playwright bellowing fellow who finally - at times begrudgingly - seems to get it when his ex lets him know that he has been the proverbial deadbeat dad for almost two decades. Wow! Take your time buddy. She has done all the work, all the good and the bad, and the damage has been done, undone ,and now it’s time for a shift in custodial care. Get it Bobby! Good!

The shadows, or even suggested presence of the two young women, Bobby and Tina’s teenaged daughters - alongside younger versions of the couple traversing the wide open leaf laden playing space - might have shifted a long sitcom’ish dramedy into a somewhat more powerful section of a three part mini series. A version of The Damage Done staged in the way Tough was staged could take the television aspect out of the drama and put it firmly back into the theatre. But as it stands, The Damage Done is an extremely engaging, humorous, and at times moving examination of the ways in which desperation born out of poverty can mature into the fragile compromise of hard won wealth, and then morph into two bitter - frequently sweet - people meeting in a park to talk about their lost youth. And it’s fun, and it’s sad. And now they are back at square one, in a park, and the park is empty. But the dramedy is full, embodied, flawed here and there, but at times rich and layered for the taking by audiences craving more of Walker’s limitless concern for people and their very serious problems.


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