— Photo by Tim Matheson. Pictured: Marcie Nestman.
The knack for responsiveness of the Venus flytrap and the skittish hummingbird are crude in comparison to the innate responsiveness of homo erectus.
Those thoughts might arise after seeing Daniel MacIvor’s strangely stimulating Communion, a dark drama riddled with laughter, about three women who are trapped within themselves, struggling to share feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Okay, it doesn’t sound uplifting. But the performances make it so.
We are the most sensitive beings. We are the most thin-skinned creatures with the most complex brains. We can’t stop ourselves from becoming agitated. Our antennae are equally on high alert whether we are talking to a bank teller or being interrogated by a police officer.
We hope we can control ourselves sufficiently to have a “good” day, but the co-existence of other similarly fraught human beings will invariably make that resolve problematic—particularly with the people we know, and the people we hope can know us. Each and every human relationship can be therapeutic; each and every human interaction can be soul-destroying.
The game of survival is being played every second, and it gets draining. As fast as that hummingbird beats its invisible wings, we are recording the fluctuations of the heart on a Richter scale of volatility that ranges from fear to love. We have twin barometers, inside our hearts and our minds, constantly monitoring the level of civility, as we improvise the thrust and parry of conversation.
Frequently we fail ourselves by being less generous, less patient and less compassionate than we imagine we can be. A split-second of road rage can elicit a flow of dread that seeps through your body for hours, or, conversely, a few simple words of kindness, given or received, can reverberate throughout the day. It’s not giving too much away to report that the climax of Communion is a moment of touching, followed by a few simple words of kindness.
Sometimes we stumble, we fall, and sometimes we hurt others. Just as we turn to medical doctors and lawyers who can provide expert counsel about physical damages and legal injustices, human society has developed professional coaches who can sometimes help us better understand the challenges we face within our personal relationships.
These people are hired listeners who act as sounding boards for our fears. Such people are called psychologists and psychiatrists. Theirs is a sophisticated calling. They must try to appear non-judgmental during conversations and, without being condescending, they must undertake the tricky task of gaining the confidence of someone in distress without muddying the waters with their own foibles as human beings, without overtly steering the conversation.
A façade of equanimity is important; a pose of stillness is de rigueur. The psychologist or psychiatrist must play second fiddle in these exchanges, emboldening the disturbed client to express their demons, fears and hopes that are often stifled within. Many people, such as Woody Allen, don’t mind letting the world know they see a shrink. Rationally, it can be argued, there should be no shame in trying to make oneself into a better and more civil member of society.
Daniel MacIvor is another such person who is shameless about seeking such therapy for the soul.
So he has written a play about it…
Respectful of the therapeutic counseling process, and presumably wanting to render public exposure to the private dynamics of psychological massage, MacIvor has created Communion, currently on view as a production of Ruby Slippers Theatre, marking its 25th anniversary, at Pacific Theatre.
This show also marks a temporary return of veteran Montreal-based director Roy Surette as well as the first time that two female heavyweights, Diane Brown and Kerry Sandomirsky, have shared a stage together.
The title is a tad forgettable, but it is important to remember. One can argue that a convergence of humans for the purposes of worship in a Catholic church is one form of communion—called religion—and the gathering of two people for the pursuit of mental health in a nondescript room—psychotherapy—is another.
In Communion we are not eavesdropping on the highly personal conversations of three women in order to generate riveting, confrontational drama in the mold of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Rather, this play is more akin to a laboratory demonstration of how relatively ordinary people must struggle to commiserate without inordinate trespassing.
Communion is not intended to serve as a showcase for scintillating wit or Eureka breakthroughs in consciousness. We are instead watching highly sentient beings negotiate the minefield of manners entailed in any intimate conversation. It is the awkwardness of communication on display. The script is littered with truncated sentences and (too) many question marks.
Love it or leave it, it is easy to imagine that MacIvor was inspired by watching episodes of Gabriel Byrne as a psychiatrist in the HBO series In Treatment. There is a decided lack of hysterics, a lack of climax. Dignity lies in trying to communicate rather than weighing the gravity of what is being said. In fact, much of the time, as an opening monologue by the psychotherapist makes clear, it is what remains unsaid that is the problem,
There is a mother. She is seriously ill. She is a former alcoholic. She is also estranged from her daughter who has veered into fundamentalist religion. When the mother (Diane Brown) seeks professional help and develops a rapport with her professionally aloof psychologist (Kerry Sandomirsky) in Act One, the psychologist ventures beyond propriety and offers commonsensical parting advice to the mother: go see your daughter.
The playwright and the publicity materials try to make much of this simple directive, as if it’s a shocking breach of professional conduct, a turning point that unleashes severe consequences.
Act Two shows the mother talking exclusively to the daughter (Marcie Nestman) in a hotel room. It turns out both women have been withholding major secrets from each other. The revelation of these secrets will change them both, but for the mother it’s the withholding of secrets that is more harmful than their content. The intolerance of the newly pregnant, churlish, Christianized daughter is made all the more hurtful by her cruel remarks about her mother’s alcoholism. The mother finds her own confession bizarrely trumped by her daughter’s unforgiving selfishness.
Act Three shows the much-altered daughter, six months later, paying an unscheduled visit to the psychologist’s office. The office is in disarray. The psychologist is closing up shop. She is not taking any new clients. In fact, she is leaving town, as well as leaving her partner. The daughter demands to be heard, to be listened to. She needs somebody else to know that her entire life has been lived as a response to her mother, including her detour into a rigid, narrow and patriarchal religious code of conduct. She gains attention by delivering some unsettling news about her mother from the get-go. The therapist is suitably taken aback.
All three characters transform. We see the ex-therapist behaving in a natural and liberated manner. The daughter returns to her rebellious, outspoken, cocky but more likeable teenage self. And we see the mother opening herself to truth and vulnerability, only to get slammed in the process.
Structurally, Communion is a conversational triad. Each character appears in two acts out of three. The psychologist gets equal stage time but far fewer lines. She must nonetheless convey that she is a major character, by mostly listening. In In Treatment, Gabriel Byrne had the advantage of close-ups on his eyes, his face, allowing the viewer to literally see him thinking, to feel his responses, but the staging of this play, with a distant audience divided into two opposing sections at Pacific Theatre, makes it impossible for both sides of the theatre to register all subtle facial responses or physical asides.
If theatre can be likened to a high-wire act without a net, the role of the psychologist in Communion can be likened to a high-wire act without a net or a highwire. Surette has the imbalanced dialogue of the opening scene played with two office chairs abnormally spaced, about seven paces apart, and this helps the audience dispel any expectations of witnessing a ping-pong match. Meanwhile, MacIvor tosses half-sentences together like a salad; somehow Brown and Sandomirsky serve it up as convincing fare. He owes them. With a minimum of rehearsal time, it’s a small miracle that this Ruby Slippers production has overcome the aforementioned challenges and provided eighty minutes of thoroughly engaging theatre, punctuated by laughter. This is one of those plays that will afford laughs in different places every night, but that’s fine. The emphasis has to be on providing some clear transformations for all three characters. SOMETHING HAPPENS, but not so much during the dialogues we are witnessing, so one leaves feeling oddly satisfied.
That said, Communion emanates from that less-is-more school of playwriting that requires actors to make names on paper come alive. For a writer to make a psychologist into a lesbian does not generate a personality; to make a mother into a recovering alcoholic does not generate a personality; and to make her daughter into a fundamentalist Christian does not generate a personality. But with some effectively minimal cello music, and some gutsy performances, this laudable production of an underwritten play successfully presents the grind of psychotherapy as much as it showcases the grist.
When people pray together, do they really expect miracles; or are they mostly seeking the comfort of communion? When people visit a shrink, are they really expecting liberation? Or are they mostly seeking communion and permission to be themselves?
Produced in a church-sponsored facility, Communion might seem like an odd fit, but the performances are sufficiently fraught with anxiety that we leave appreciating the imperfection of conversation, the therapy inherent in reaching out for compassion and understanding.