— Love Bomb
Meghan Gardiner’s new two-hander-with music, Love Bomb, takes off from where her one-woman play Dissolve left off. The very successful Dissolve, which has been touring since 2003, is a warning to young women about the date rape drug. Love Bomb warns the same demographic—and their parents—about how intense displays of love can trap a vulnerable young woman into a life of drugs, sex slavery and worse.
In this shameless hussy premiere directed by Renee Iaci at the Firehall, Sara Vickruck plays Justine, a young singer-songwriter warming up her voice and three guitars before a set she’s to play at a club in Prince George. In walks middle-aged Lillian (Deb Pickman), intensely interested in Justine’s music. Turns out Lillian has spent months looking for her daughter, also an aspiring musician, missing from Fort St. John. Lillian suspects that Justine has plagiarized song lyrics from her daughter, and that Justine may be able to help track her down. Lillian is right.
For the rest of this intense, intermissionless 85-minute piece, Justine plays and sings eleven songs, each of which leaks a few more clues about the daughter’s probable motivations and likely fate. Lillian offers interpretations and Justine reluctantly parcels out information. All this takes place along the notorious Highway of Tears, where so many young women have disappeared or been found murdered over the past couple of decades. It’s not a happy story and it wouldn’t be an especially hopeful one except that Justine has survived her version of the experience and has clearly channeled her anger and pain into her impressive musical art.
Vickruck is fantastic. A ferocious singer and very good guitarist, whether on electric or acoustic, she bottles up Justine’s wounds inside a tough, self-protective exterior. The rock songs Gardiner has written for her, with music and additional lyrics by Steve Charles, are also consistently strong, although the important lyrics aren’t always audible over the amplified guitar. Pickman also does good work as the anguished mother, even if a parent in her situation might be a lot more desperate than she seems.
Both actors are seriously hindered by a stagey scenario that defies credibility. Lillian has to continually threaten to call the cops, Justine to kick Lillian out. But because this is a two-hander, no one leaves and no one else comes. A coy theatrical convention comes into play whereby the audience accepts the unlikely premise that this desperate mother would agree to a game of literary criticism with song lyrics rather than attempting to strangle the woman who probably knows where her missing, exploited daughter currently is.
I also found the lighting problematic. The theatre is set up as a rectangle with Justine’s stage occupying one short side and the audience seated along the other three. Lillian sits inside the rectangle. Itai Erdal’s lighting washes beyond the stage area so the audience is almost as fully lit as the characters. If this is intended as a Brechtian suggestion that we parents and children in the audience are no less susceptible to the dangers suffered by the play’s women, it didn’t work that way for me. Neither character addresses us directly, not even Justine when she performs—until her final song, when the house goes dark and the light focuses solely on her. The full-on lighting simply decreases the pressure and intensity that a more focused lighting plot might provide.
New musicals always require more time and multiple productions to iron out their problems than non-musical plays. Love Bomb tells an important story via excellent songs and performances, and deserves to get those chances.