Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan


Stratford's "The Thrill" is not really that exciting!

Lucy Peacock. Photography by Don Dixon
Lucy Peacock. Photography by Don Dixon

The Thrill by Judith Thompson , directed by Dean Gabourie enjoys its world première this season at Stratford, commissioned by the Festival. In the intimate Studio Theatre, the square, boxing-ring like stage is dominated by two characters/combatants - Lucy Peacock as Elora, a successful lawyer, fiery activist and self-described "bedpan crip" and Nigel Bennett as Julian Summer, a celebrity champion of the right-to-die movement. Viola: instant conflict!

In the program's "Director's Notes" Gabourie says, "Judith Thompson's plays, to quote the dramatist Howard Barker, are like "the grain of sand in the oyster's gut": the questions posed and the truths told ask both the actors on stage and the audience to define their own beliefs concerning some of our society's darkest issues. The stakes in Thompson's writing are always high - matters of life and death, if you will - but this play happens to be about life and death and the quality of both."

"Throughout our rehearsal process we were constantly prompted to ask how we, as creators, defined "a life worth living" or dying a "good death." The answers were as diverse as the people gathered. Hopefully out of that eternal creative friction there will come a pearl."

Unfortunately, sand tends to mire the plot in this drama, and the contrived PC ending leaves the viewer not with the aforementioned pearl, but with the irritation instead. The play brings back memories of two recent Canadian legal cases involving Sue Rodriguez and Robert Latimer .

Rodriguez in Victoria, British Columbia, was diagnosed with ALS in 1991, and fought for a legal right to assisted suicide, but under the Criminal Code of Canada, assisted suicide is punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. On September 30, 1993 in a landmark decision, Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), the Supreme Court narrowly voted 5-4 against her. In 1994, she opted to take her own life with the help of an anonymous physician. Svend Robinson , a New Democratic Party MP who campaigned for her cause, was also present. A 1998 film called At the End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story, with Wendy Crewson as Rodriguez, tells her story.

Robert Latimer, a canola and wheat farmer was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his daughter Tracy, afflicted with severe mental and physical disabilities including seizures with little or no voluntary control of her muscles. She could not walk or talk. Latimer began serving his sentence on January 18, 2001 and was incarcerated at William Head Institution, a minimum-security facility located 30 kilometers west of Victoria, BC, on Vancouver Island.

On December 5, 2007, he requested day parole from the National Parole Board, telling the parole board that he believed killing his daughter was the right thing to do. The board denied his request. In February 2008, a review board overturned the earlier parole board decision, and granted Latimer day parole stating that there was low risk he would re-offend. Latimer was released from William Head Prison and began his day parole in Ottawa in March.

Peacock as Elora literally runs into and knocks over Bennett with her electric wheelchair at a public appearance, but this encounter strangely unites the conflicting duo, the first of several puzzles in the play, based on an article by disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson about her conflict with ethics professor Peter Singer.

Harriet, severely disabled, believed the disabled should always be allowed to live while Singer suggested euthanasia was sometimes the preferred solution. (see conflict above) Thompson changes the names, but Elora lives in Charleston, North Carolina as Johnson did, and Singer is transformed from Australian to an Irishman. In a convenient parallel structure, Elora employs a gay custodian, Francis (Robert Persichini), while Bennett is the caregiver for his crumbling mother, Hannah (Patricia Collins).

From the opening collision, we have an inexplicable romantic connection between the two protagonists while first Hannah then Elora starts their final descent.

Peacock's youthful Elora drives her power wheelchair like a Harley motorcycle, wears short skirts and has Persichini braid her long, auburn hair. Think female Willie Nelson. "I feel like some kind of warrior princess," she declares and as for her romance with Bennett, "Lovin' him is like the chicken lovin' the axe." Peacock with gnarled hands ("dead birds") and a frail, twisted body is superb with her unsentimental, often humorous portrayal, the only dynamic that propels the play forward, both protagonists forced to consider the other's point of view. She captures our attention from the outset with a tirade against Jerry Lewis and his telethons.

Bennett's Julian tries valiantly but is harder to believe while Persichini's pure devotion is effective. As Hannah, the demented mother, Collins seems paradoxically to be the most coherent character in the play.

Towards the end after Julian's ridiculous "death kiss" fails, Elora bravely tries to sum up the play with the suggestion that each day is "heaven," which is a bit hard to believe given Sue Rodriguez and Robert Latimer who might opt instead for hell. The audience is left limp with the simplistic Pollyanna-like conclusion.

The Thrill plays to September 22
Stratford Festival: 1-800-567-1600 or www.stratfordfestival.ca


Warning: This video is for mature viewers as it depicts an actual euthanasia which is legal in Switzerland.
Michèle Causse at Dignitas (Switzerland). Assisted Suicide / Euthanasia

The Thrill | 2013 Stratford Festival


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