THE DYING GAME
David Diamond, Director
Starring Pat Armstrong, Fraser Black, MD and Angelo Moroni
Roundhouse Community Centre
February 11-22 1998
Information: 251-2006 or 682-0022
IMPROVISING OUR ATTITUDES ON DEATH AND DYING
I'm always a little nervous about attending improvisational theatre because I have this gnawing fear that I will somehow be drawn into the action against my will. But I needn't have worried, for the audience which attended a production of The Dying Game seemed more than eager to get up and take part in the play, and guide it in the way they wanted the action to go.
As one person noted, this was as much a group therapy session as it was a theatrical performance. Earnestness is the key word during this production, because director David Diamond wanted the audience to really feel that they could change the behavior and destiny of the three oppressed actors. He wrote the play with the intention that his heavy handed characterization would strike a chord in the audience. And so it did.
The play recounts the real life events surrounding the death of Diamond's mother in 1994. He realized that his experience and relationship to her death were based on society's fear of death and that attitude is not particularly healthy.
One thing we learn from the original 20 minute play - death is not pretty. The key players involved, Ida, the dying mother, Allan, her son and Dr Palmer, all say or do exactly the wrong things. Ida feels powerless and ignored, Allan feels guilty and overwhelmed; Dr Palmer feels like he is failing his patient because he can't "cure" her. Out of this cauldron of emotions, real feelings are left unexpressed, real needs are not met.
At the performance I attended, the first row seemed entirely composed of nurses. As I heard them talk before the play began, about their jobs, head nurses, and bedside care I realized how oppressed they were in a medical system that looks to bottomlines, and not at patient care. When the action started, these nurses had a perfect opportunity to yell "stop" and correct the theatrical situation, while in real life that so rarely is allowed to happen.
In the improvised version of events, Ida is empowered to tell people what she really wants, she is able to confront her son about how she wants him to behave, the doctor is allowed to feel compassion for his patient and let her know that she will be looked after to the best of his ability with no timeline put on her survival.
Pat Armstrong as Ida was a gem to watch, shining with new actions and behaviors, as the action changed around her and audience members would play the role of her son or doctor. She always had a witty and appropriate comeback line. With her sweet voice and slippered shuffle, she created a full blown character that inspired great compassion.
Angelo Moroni as Allan had a difficult role to play since he always seemed to be doing the wrong thing...and he knew it. As the audience peeled away layers of the story and replaced it with their own, he was often left dangling.
A unique aspect of this production was casting a real life medical doctor as the play's doctor. Dr Fraser Black is a specialist in palliative care at both St Paul's and St Mary's hospitals and works with children and their families in pediatric care at Canuck Place. "There is a certain belief in the ethic that people have to die in good health," Dr Black explained in the post-show question period. "There are many interventions that we can do to help people die and the transition from care for cure to care for comfort is often a difficult one for doctors to make."
Dr Black may have found a new important hobby in theatre since he has a certain stage presence and has matinee idol good looks as well.
Glynis Leyshon, Artistic Director of The Playhouse, was one of the first to go up on stage and replay Allan as she saw fit. It was a touching performance as she played Allan and allowed herself to feel real love and tenderness towards his mother.
I have great admiration for Diamond's ability to take what was so obviously a highly emotional experience in his life and rework it into a theatrical experience that aims to provide such important insights into an event we all will face at one time or another.
He has directed over 200 community specific Theatre for Living projects on issues including racism, gender roles, violence, addiction and First Nations. Seeing his mother die over and over again must surely have been his most emotionally challenging project.
"Dying is normal," Diamond said. Sometimes it happens earlier that we want, but it happens nonetheless."
Diamond hoped that the audiences who see his production would take back the insights they gained and bring them back to reality. Judging by the audience response , I think he got his wish.
Copyright 1998 Roxanne Davies