BWW Reviews: Stratford Festival's World Premiere of Judith Thompson's THE THRILL
When one thinks of Stratford Festival, they might think of the classic productions that are often staged to great acclaim; but it is important that audiences are also aware of the bold new productions that are premiering at the festival. THE THRILL by Judith Thompson is one of these plays and it certainly should not be missed.
In this play, discussion and debate surrounding the concept of 'Right to Die' is central; however, at its core, this is a play not about death, but about life. It is also about complex, layered characters, and how they, at different times in their life, perceive what it means to live and to die with dignity.
When Elora, a brilliant and spunky human rights lawyer, who has a progressive neuromuscular disease comes face to face with an author promoting the right for parents to euthanize children with severe disabilities, she feels her entire existence is being threatened and challenges him through protest. It soon becomes clear that the author is not the devil, and is in fact a reasonable man whose beliefs are influenced by real life hardship, and who is eager to learn of another point of view. The two engage in public debate, and private courtship-resulting in a most unlikely whirlwind romance. Elora's illness looms in the background; however, and her health continues to decline, causing the two to re-evaluate their previously held beliefs about the right-to-die, and to cope with the realities before them.
These characters are loosely based on famed civil rights lawyer, Harriet McBryde Johnson, who died of a neuromuscular disease in 2008, and ethics philosopher Peter Singer, who she famously debated in 2002. In real life, there was no romance between these two; however, the respect they grew to have for one another was very real.
Festival favourite Lucy Peacock brings the character of Elora to life, portraying the passion, conviction, and wit of a woman who sees the value in making sure the world understands that in spite of her disability, she lives a full and meaningful life. Elora is determined not to be defined by her disability, yet is willing to put it front and centre in order to argue against the sentiments presented by Julian (played by an excellent Nigel Bennett), an acclaimed and controversial author who shares his own experience of having a young sister who died from a painful degenerative condition. Ms. Peacock and Mr. Bennett have tangible chemistry and make their characters unlikely romance fun to watch.
As a registered Occupational Therapist, this writer must give praise to everyone involved in this project for the obvious time, research and consultation that went into portraying Elora's disability realistically and respectfully. Ms. Peacock's proficient use of a power wheelchair whilst also maintaining limited movement in her hands and arms must have required a great deal of patience and learning, and allows the audience to see a realistic representation of someone with a degenerative neuromuscular condition. Although Elora's disability is hardly the most interesting thing about her, it would be a disservice to people with similar disabilities if Ms. Peacock and the production team did not do their due diligence in presenting this character accurately. From both a technical and character-based perspective, this is one of the best portrayals of disability in any medium that this writer has seen in a long time.
Although this play focuses on Elora and Julian and their blossoming, and somewhat tragic romance-there are two other characters that not only allow the audience to explore another dimension of each of the leads, but also bring forward complex and endearing three-dimensional characters themselves. As Elora's at-home Personal Support Worker, Francis, Robert Persichini is the ultimate friend. He is patient, honest, witty, caring, and incredibly loyal. The relationship between Elora and Francis seems very authentic and is a type of relationship that is rarely explored in any medium. She is his employer, and he provides her personal care-but they are human, and they know each other better than anyone else. Of course there would be a deep friendship between them. Through the banter between these friends, the exposition of the early part of the play is seamlessly laid out. In the second half, there is less to laugh about between these two, as Francis is watching his dear friend slip away. There is a touching moment when Francis reveals to a sleeping Elora just how devastated he is by the way he is losing his friend. It is very moving and very real.
As Julian's mother Hannah, Patricia Collins is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Hannah is a complicated spitfire of a woman, having lived, as she puts it, a mediocre life-experiencing her share of hardship and pain, but also living comfortably most of the time. She finds herself now beginning to struggle with the loss of some of her cognitive faculties-frequently experiencing confusion or thinking she can speak with her daughter who died as a child. Hannah appears to know that she is struggling, but is determined to stay out of a nursing home, wanting instead to live with her son. Julian's internal struggle over this is something that many audience members will likely relate to. He is often on tour with his book and does not feel he would be able to provide enough care for his mother. He also struggles with watching her suffer and change, and does not know what he can do to help her.