Culture & Conversation

Not Quite Heavenly

The moment that the lights dim and classical voices start singing, you know you are in for serious discourse about important matters. In down from heaven, playwright Colleen Wagner has taken on a pandemic and a food shortage exacerbated by serious class issues. The once wealthy and infinitely “civilized” Braumbach family is quarantined in their basement, utterly dependent on their former gardener, Cheater.

Cheater is the only link with the world outside, and Laurel, their 16-year-old daughter, is the only member of the family with whom he communicates.

The play unfolds over a 10-day period of quarantine during which Cheater makes more and more egregious demands on Laurel. The tension mounts when the very proper Braumbach parents lose their ability to maintain decorum while starving. The play has elements of Boris Vian’s Builders of the Empire. However, the style of down from heaven lacks the consistency of the former.

Leni Parker is riveting as the slowly deteriorating mother, but there was insufficient time taken with her demise. Her final monologue needed time to build. As well, her wealthy persona was almost two dimensional. Bruce Dinsmore gave his best to portray a character overly uxorious and then hysterical without transition.

As Laurel, Amelia Sargisson’s evolution from frightened and pouting adolescent to virago was developed so well that she had tragic stature by the finale. Chip Chuipka as Cheater gave a flawless portrayal of the disenfranchised, blessed with sudden power. His performance was nuanced and mesmerizing.

down from heaven had a dream team of actors and an award winning playwright, but it did not quite reach its potential. Alain Goulem is a terrific actor, but his experience as director was not matched to the material. The positioning of the gate in the first part of the play forced the actors into an awkward stasis. Placing the feast up stage had the actors face away from the audience at a crucial time in the story. Goulem might have done more to shade the rhetoric of Parker and Dinsmore.

By an odd set of circumstances I had accidentally missed two meals before seeing the play. Had I been anywhere near the feast on stage, I would have seriously wounded anyone standing in my way to the table, and I would not have taken food to anyone else before eating.

There are some fantastic resonances in this play. As a refugee camp baby, I heard stories about the brutality, disease and weakness that hunger generates. This play does invoke our worst fears about disease, abuse of power and social turmoil. There might, however, be a stronger balance between the scenes of the family and the rest. The former were delightfully absurdist, but they were too utterly different, and their language contrasted too vehemently with the realism of the dialogue between para-military former gardener and desperate adolescent.

The set was beautifully executed, and the lights were artistic, but too dim for my ageing eyes. The music was beautiful, but there were moments when it intruded into the dialogue. down from heaven is a flawed but magnificent play, and well worth the trip to the Monument.

Imago Theatre’s down from heaven continues at Monument National, 1182 St-Laurent Blvd., through October 3rd. For details and more information go to the Imago Theatre site.

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