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Jackie Richardson and Andrew Moodie   Photo:Andree Lanthier
Jackie Richardson and Andrew Moodie Photo:Andree Lanthier

Theatre Review: "thirsty" at the National Arts Centre

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The World Premiere of "thirsty" by Dionne Brand is running in the Studio at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa through November 17. Based on her book of poetry of the same title, it tells the story of a man destroyed by his inability to cope with cultural change.

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Reported by

Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

The world premiere of “thirsty,” adapted from her book of poetry of the same title by award-winning poet and novelist Dionne Brand, is a powerful statement of love and loss.  Based on a 1978 incident in Toronto when a Jamaican man was shot and killed by police in his apartment, it explores Alan’s life and death and its effect on his wife Julia, his daughter Girl and his mother Chloe.  Both a poem and a play, the structure is circular rather than linear.  Each time the shooting recurs we’ve learned more about the characters and Alan’s mental deterioration in the face of cultural confrontation.

As in any production directed by Peter Hinton, all the elements are imaginative and add up to a powerful and cohesive whole.  Gillian Gallow’s inventive set is constructed on an oval that echoes the play’s circular construction.  There are three basic playing areas: Julia’s lab-like work place, Girl’s bike and Chloe’s sewing machine.  Upstage center there’s a long wooden staircase, used primarily as a playing space for Alan.

Louise Guinand’s excellent lighting helps define not only playing areas but also emotions.  It creates some wonderful shadows, particularly on the stairs.  Troy Slocum’s terrific soundscape makes good use of all the different sounds of water, as well as interesting music.  At times it helps create an almost unbearable tension.

This is a very strong cast.  As Alan’s daughter, Carol Cece Anderson is constantly pulled in opposite directions by her love for the father who raised her and her mother’s drive toward a better future.  Audrey Dwyer, in a strong performance as Julia, is ambitious not only for herself but for Alan.  She’s unable to help him adjust to this new society.

As Chloe, Jackie Richardson is a commanding presence.  Determined not to be a financial burden, she is nevertheless a heavy emotional one.  Andrew Moodie gives a stunning performance as Alan, a man who’s unable to understand what’s expected of him and angry at the demands of this new culture.  It’s a heart-wrenching portrayal of slow decline into hopelessness and finally madness.

Director Peter Hinton, with the assistance of dramaturg Paula Danckert, has helped playwright Brand shape her poetry into a powerful piece of theatre. The staging is interesting and flowing and the characters fully alive.  The tension that builds in the penultimate scene holds the audience rapt.  There’s even a faint ray of hope with the Girl on her bike in a final transcendent moment.

“thirsty” is a production of almost unrelenting power.  I must quote my companion who said, “It’s a terrific production, but it’s so SAD.”  Sad it may be, but the power is there and it speaks to us all.

On a scale of one to five the NAC English Theatre production of “thirsty” gets four and seven-eighths Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.

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