Stage Left: Phoenix Theatre’s Problem Child offers rewards despite limitations

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The eyes have it — albeit by default — in a brand-new production of George F. Walker’s darkly humorous drama Problem Child.

Due to the safety precautions necessitated by COVID-19, the four young actors in this University of Victoria show wear blue surgical masks. As far as facial expression goes, we see only their eyes. This restriction cannot help but be limiting — perhaps akin to watching dancers perform from the waist down or seeing a painting rendered in three colours. (Even in Greek theatre, the masks had facial expressions.)

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Also in deference to the pandemic, performances of the Phoenix Theatre production are livestreamed. We watch on computers rather than experiencing it in person. Of course, theatre’s unique power is rooted in audiences and actors experiencing it together in the same room. Once again the viewer is distanced.

These conditions may be far from ideal; nonetheless, there are rewards to be found in this show, having its final performance tonight. At the very least, enjoying live theatre after a months-long drought is like being handed a cold flask of Perrier after a hot Saharan trek.

This is UVic’s first public production since COVID struck. The play was rehearsed in masks, with the cast, crew and technicians all practising social distancing during the process. Director Fran Gebhard notes in the program: “No, it’s not really theatre and it’s not TV either, but it is a sincere practice of our art form during a pandemic.”

That the university was able to pull this off at all is nothing short of remarkable and to be commended.

Problem Child (1997) is part of Walker’s Suburban Motel series, a cycle of six one-act plays (this one clocks in at 80 minutes). They all take place in crummy motel rooms. Each piece examines — with ironic empathy and gut-punching humour — the plight of lower-class people struggling within an unsympathetic system that views them contemptuously.

Ex-con R.J. is holed up with his girlfriend Denise, a former drug addict and sometime sex worker. The couple is mired in a hellish stasis while waiting to see if Helen, a social worker, will agree to the return of Denise’s baby, now living with a foster family.

Helen is an officious type barely able to conceal her distaste for her clients. She sums up her view of Denise’s fitness as a mother with this: “You’re a drug addict and a prostitute who wants her baby back.”

Walker (himself a high-school drop-out and former taxi driver) knows society’s downtrodden are much more than the arbitrary labels slapped upon them by the middle class. Denise, quite nicely portrayed Thursday night by Davey Elliot, is undoubtedly damaged and angry. She freely acknowledges her druggie past and the fact she “turned a few tricks” to pay the rent. Yet we also see a character in possession of admirable traits: a certain strength, dignity and integrity.

The Canadian playwright’s glasses are hardly rose-tinted. One night, Denise, tortured by the Beckett-like limbo she’s in, falls off the wagon and guzzles half a dozen beers. She says: “The way I was feeling was… f—k it!”

Walker is good at creating vulgarly humorous utterances for his low-rent heroes, a skill wielded like a cudgel. Take the play’s fourth character, Phillie, a buffoonish drunk and sometime motel janitor. He is enlisted by Denise to kidnap her child after calamity befalls the social worker. Learning of the plot, R.J. comments: “Phillie is one of us… scum of the earth.”

More low-brow humour stems from R.J.’s obsession with Jerry Springer-like TV shows. He’s particularly incensed by an episode in which a man boasts of having sexual relationships with three women. This gives rise to more trademark Walkerisms: “Look at that guy, look at his grin… Ask him about his dick. The truth is in his dick.”

It’s not just about garnering cheap laughs. Walker wants us, the middle-class theatregoer, to be shocked out of our complacency. He wants us to question whether we — like the heartless social worker — are dismissing the downtrodden without considering them as human beings. It’s an ever-relevant question in modern society — just look at the ongoing debate regarding homeless campers in Beacon Hill Park.

Given the distancing effect of masks, more close-ups of the actors might help in further engaging the audience (wide-angle shots tend to dilute the play’s hothouse intimacy).

Designer Cassie Holmes offers a convincingly depressing motel room with black walls, lime-green shag carpeting, a stained lampshade and an idealized painting of the sort of bourgeois home of which R.J. and Denise can only dream.

There are two alternating casts. On Thursday Elliot, as Denise, had two stand-out scenes. In one, she weeps for her baby (“Please let this happen”) — a sequence that might have been allowed to linger longer before the lights dimmed and the incidental music came in.

Elliot also impressed during Denise’s final summarizing monologue, capturing yet not overplaying the character’s resilience in the face of hopelessness.

Thursday’s cast reprises the play at 8 p.m. tonight. The actors include Aidan Guerreiro as R.J., Ted MacRae as Phillie and Esme Laidlaw as Helen. For more information, go to the Phoenix Theatre website.

For tickets to see the play online, call 250-721-8000.

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