I went by myself to see Half Life because my wife, Sue, was in Chilliwack celebrating her mother’s 89th birthday. Fiercely proud, Betty lives alone in her own home, barely hanging on as her physical health and short-term memory rapidly deteriorate.
Half Life is about people like Sue, devoted to their aged parents, admiring their vitality and independence yet deeply concerned about their safety and care. And it’s about people like Betty at the next stage of their lives, when they can no longer fend for themselves.
This demographic crisis gets sensitive, intelligent treatment in John Mighton’s script, presented by the Arts Club in Daniel Brooks’ superb Necessary Angel production with an all-star Toronto cast. Mighton treats the subject not as a social issue but as a series of human dramas.
Middle-aged divorcees Anna (Laura de Carteret) and Donald (Diego Matamoros) meet in the waiting room of the assisted-care facility where his mother, Clara (Carolyn Hetherington), lives. Her father, Patrick (Eric Peterson), has just moved in. Anna asks, “Is your mother happy here?” Donald answers, “She’s always happy but she’s not often here.”
Sweet old Clara drifts, rambles, and slips in and out of lucidity. She’s also incontinent. But she still develops a relationship with Patrick as complex as any 20-year-olds might have, with sex and love and talk of marriage. Can the rules of the facility and Donald’s protectiveness towards his vulnerable mother and dead war-hero father allow it?
Matters are further complicated by Patrick’s questionable character and mysterious past. Did Clara and Patrick know and maybe even love each other before? Or is this just senility or wishful thinking? Peterson brings to Patrick elements of his character Oscar from Corner Gas but also shows us what a brilliant stage actor he is. Hetherington’s Clara is heartbreaking.
Around their central story emerge others: earnest and funny Reverend Stanley (Randy Hughson), who has fascinating arguments with computer scientist Donald about artificial intelligence and the soul; nurse Tammy (Maggie Huculak), either devoted to Clara, stealing from her, or both; and cranky old resident Agnes (Barbara Gordon).
The complexity of it all leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In one scene nurse Tammy, doing her best to get the old folks to work on their crafts but in a way that borders on condescension, mentions that another resident has just died. “At least she doesn’t have to do crafts anymore,” Agnes growls, and the audience howls in relief.
All the acting is beautifully detailed and understated, and the production is meticulous. Scenes occur in pools of half-light on the bare stage and even the scene changes are carefully choreographed. Sweet and funny and unutterably sad, this is theatre for adults—of any age.