— Jonathan Young. Photo: David Cooper.
THE WAITING ROOM
Something very special is going on at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage. Getting its world premiere, The Waiting Room is Morris Panych’s dramatization of John Mann’s experience of colon cancer, enacted against the literal backdrop (upstage behind a scrim) of Mann and a band performing songs from the excellent album of the same name that Mann recorded about that experience last year.
Talk about subtext. This show is so resonant that it’s hard to know where to start: the aging of Generation Boomer, the Canadian medical system both pro and con, Panych’s remarkable career, Mann’s extraordinary story.
It’s not all amazing. The first half is a bit of a mish mash, with opening night adrenaline additionally disrupting the rhythm. But once things settle down at about the thirty minute mark and Mann’s lyrics start to synch with the staging, a stunning, stirring theatrical experience unfolds before us: a story about the awfulness of disease, the inevitability of mortality, and the importance of living fully and gratefully until you die.
Despite how this may sound, the combined artistry and humanity of Panych and Mann along with an A-list cast, band and design team ensures that The Waiting Room is about as far from sentimental and sucky as you can get. Panych has been writing versions of this play his entire career—chronicling the absurdities of life under the shadow of death—and as director he has brought along some of his favourite actors to help tell the tale, framed by his longtime partner Ken MacDonald’s striking set of many white chairs descending from the flies like a bizarre heavenly curtain.
Dressed identically to Mann and whippet-thin like him, the eminently watchable Jonathon Young plays J, a musician and songwriter diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his colon. Accompanying J on his comical/terrifying journey through the medical system is C, the cheerful ghost of a ten-year-old girl who has died of leukemia (a slightly manic Matreya Scarrwener). Only J can see and hear her but he’s never sure of her reality. She tries to keep him grounded but generally freaks him out even more.
Jillian Fargey plays J’s supportive but edgy wife, L. Various doctors, medical personnel and patients are portrayed by Peter Anderson, Chris Cochrane and Bonnie Panych, the latter especially effective as a sarcastic nurse and an infuriatingly impersonal surgeon.
Parts of the play are painfully funny: the awful indignities of a colonoscopy, J’s frightened response to a medical tech’s “oh oh” (as Mann sings “oh oh oh” behind him and the band rocks out), J’s resistance to someone praying for him, followed by another patient’s comment, “We’re shitting into bags and bleeding from our dicks—at this point we need all the help we can get.”
The most striking, horrific (and somehow still funny) scene involves a post-surgical birthday party for J where his colostomy bag falls off and breaks, as Mann sings of “broken bags and crying jags and wounds that never heal.” C’s powerfully understated monologue about the horrors of chemotherapy comes a close second.
In the end L helps J realize how selfishly self-indulgent he has been (“We don’t suffer alone!”), as Young’s character enacts and Mann sings the album’s anthem of healing and gratitude, “Thank You,” while at centre stage stands the ghost of the dead child, the play’s memento mori.
Allan Rodger’s four-piece band is terrific. Rodgers plays keyboards with Eric Reed on guitar, the Paperboys’ Brad Gillard on banjo, and the marvelous Shari Ulrich on violin. And Mann on vocals is a wonder.
Panych and Mann have collaborated creatively before, Panych having directed a Spirit of the West music video. But the remarkable synergies of this show emerge from what must have been a very difficult process. Although not referenced anywhere in The Waiting Room, it’s no secret that John Mann is suffering from a rapidly developing early onset Alzheimer’s. He can no longer play guitar and he needs to read from a lyric sheet to sing his own supremely intelligent songs. But his voice hasn’t lost any of its energy or texture or power. And watch when he throws his whole body into it and windmills his arms while singing. It’s a wondrous thing.
When Mann closes the show with a sublime a cappella version of Robbie Burns, you’ll find it hard not to cry and cheer and think about your own life and eventual death. What more can we ask theatre to do for us.