Tough questions, great acting highlight The Thrill

The Thrill – On The Run 2013

Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Lucy Peacock as Elora and Nigel Bennett as Julian in The Thrill.

Credit: Chet Greason

The Thrill, a play by Judith Thompson currently being staged at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre, contains some incredible acting. It tackles some difficult issues from multiple viewpoints, leaving tough questions largely unresolved- usually the way it goes in real life. However, the acting is what makes the play worth seeing.

The chameleonic Lucy Peacock plays Elora, a character based on lawyer and disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson. She begins an unlikely relationship with an Irish author named Julian (Nigel Bennett), whose pro-euthanasia stance puts them at ideological odds with one another in the right-to-live/right-to-die debate.

Peacock does some amazing things in The Thrill. Her character, Elora, suffers from a neuromuscular disease and therefore spends the entire play in a motorized wheelchair. However, her performance goes well beyond the chair; she breathes like an asthmatic, has believable issues with the dexterity of her fingers, and suffers it all with the stoic dignity of a fiery southern lady.

The supporting cast also does a phenomenal job. Robert Persichini as Elora’s support worker Francis and Patricia Collins as Julian’s mother Hannah would both be nominated for best featured actor awards should the Stratford Festival ever adopt a Tony-style awards system.

Persichini is endlessly warm, funny, and frank, acting as both a fuel and foil to Elora’s dramatic nature. Persichini comes off as a very real and lovable character despite some awkward lines thrown at him from the playwright (something about “getting your juices flowing for your man”?)

Meanwhile, Collins is astonishing as the dementia-stricken Hannah. Her monologue reflecting back on her very average life includes some of the most blunt and well-written dialogue of the play, and would likely sell as a single should it ever be put to a musical backdrop. The scene where Hannah reveals her online life to her son is laugh-out-loud funny, and is followed by a very touching instance of a sublime moment of clarity. For anyone who has ever had a loved one suffer from a degenerative disease of the mind, this will likely pull some heartstrings.

The best scenes in The Thrill involve the peripheral relationships: Elora with Francis and Julian with Hannah. It is the pivotal relationship between Elora and Julian that suffers. This is largely due to how Francis’ role is written. Bennett does what he can, but the end result is that Julian comes off as way too creepy in his romantic pursuit of Elora. This has nothing to do with the fact that he’s an able-bodied man seeking a physical relationship with a woman in a wheelchair.

The back-and-forth would appear creepy even if both were physically fit, or both in wheelchairs. He’s simply far too pushy and forward, and will likely make most audience members feel very uncomfortable.

Elora, for her part, accepts him. One wonders if she’s also creeped out by Julian’s touchy advances, but responds out of a deep craving for a physical relationship. Either way, it all works out platonically, so I suppose we can’t fault either of them. Still, I was put off by some instances of silent acquiescence when there should’ve probably been a slap.

The set is also awkward. Director Dean Gabourie rightly opts for minimalism, but any focus on dialogue his lack of furniture affords is lost to the off-beat design of the stage itself. Blue sky and clouds comprise the disco floor, and wave-sounds dominate the soundscape between scenes. The single purple square that encompasses the backdrop makes the stage look like it’s part of a new wave music video straight out of the 1980s, or stuck in a crystal cube on sale at the local candle and amethyst shop.

The ethereal feel of the stage contrasts heavily with the grounded conversations that are happening. Perhaps this was done on purpose? The Thrill is full of references to heaven and hell and, later, purgatory. The political stances taken in the play also fall into strict black and white dichotomies, while its conclusion is undeniably grey. Perhaps the earthy acting and the sterile set are also meant to contrast one another? Unfortunately, whatever the rationale, it ultimately proves distracting.

But don’t go to The Thrill for the big purple square. Go to hear the tough questions raised by the text and to enjoy the admirable job done by its four actors.

Thought-provoking and affecting, it’s a fine production.

Original article on the Stratford Gazette’s website.

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