OCTOBER 2020 | Volume 196
What happens when an actor can’t act anymore, when the work dries up and s/he—who has no other job skills or experience—has to find another job? That’s the premise of Allan Morgan’s autobiographical play, I Walked the Line, directed by Ross Desprez. After starring as Prospero in The Tempest at Bard on the Beach, Morgan found himself unemployed and running out of money. Finally, reluctantly, he got another job—as a mail clerk for a Lower Mainland trade union.
His experience in that position provides the fish-out-of-water comedy of Morgan’s monologue. But what he observed and what happened to him during that year is a grittier, more disturbing story. It’s when the two elements come together that I Walked the Line really cooks.
The first part of the play is heavily comic as Allan describes his early days on the job, what he calls his “Pee or Flee” response to his new environment: “What the hell did I know about bloody mail-clerking?” This gay man from the city feels alien among his co-workers, mostly straight women from the suburbs. When they prove welcoming, Allan drops his preconceptions and embraces the job, bringing his theatre skills to bear on distributing the mail.
The mail cart he pushes around the stage is full of costume pieces and posters he made to create pseudo-holidays, celebrate birthdays and generally do what he knows how to do best—entertain, and create community. The posters are projected onto an upstage flat painted to look like a honeycomb. “I sort of pollinated the building,” he tells us. Morgan’s charming presence dominates this somewhat loosey-goosey half of the play.
Things turn more serious when the union that employs Allan locks the union he belongs to out of the building after negotiating in bad faith over a new contract for the clerks and secretaries. The rest of the play is about his six months on the picket line. There, too, he entertains and connects: improvising and choreographing political theatricals, adapting songs, organizing a Food Bank food drive.
But the stakes are a lot higher now and comedy doesn’t come so easily. Like his brothers and sisters on the line, Allan feels betrayed by the union that employs them and disabused of his idealism about trade unions generally. Turns out they have their own nasty hierarchies and self-interest. When the rains of November start to fall, his union accepts a crappy offer and goes back to work. Allan leaves the experience embittered.
Or not quite. The play opens and closes with Allan speaking as Prospero, a magician noble and powerful even in defeat. Allan has passed through his personal tempest. His theatrical skills have helped mitigate the political disappointments. Art doesn’t triumph over life but helps make sense of it.
A smart and entertaining play from a veteran actor, I Walked the Line is more likely to make you want to go into theatre than go to work for a union.
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