BWW Review: Sowelu Theatre's THE CRACKWALKER Will Haunt You Long After the Lights Go Up
At the end of the performance I saw of THE CRACKWALKER, the current production by Sowelu Theatre, no one moved. The cast took their bows, the house lights and the exit music came on, and we all just sat there. Barry Hunt, Sowelu's artistic director (and the director of the play), opened the theatre door. It was still several moments before anyone got up to leave.
THE CRACKWALKER, written by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, premiered in 1980 as a story of the seedy underbelly of Kingston, Ontario, where Thompson spent some time as a social worker. But it could just as well have been written today, here in Portland.
The story centers on Theresa, a mentally challenged young woman who has no stable address and turns tricks to get by, and her boyfriend, Alan, a mentally fragile young man who can't escape his nightmarish thoughts. They are taken in by some friends, Sandy and Joe, whose own relationship is challenged by poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence. There's also an older homeless man who hangs around the fringes, frightening the other characters, perhaps because they're aware of how close they all are to suffering his same fate.
These are all people who go to sleep each night with no illusions that tomorrow will be any better - they're just hoping it won't be worse. But life can be cruel, and things can always get worse. It's a very difficult, very good play.
I was blown away by the caliber of the acting, which made me feel compassion for all of the characters, even as they did unspeakably horrible things. As Theresa, Liviya Burns gave one of the best performances I've ever seen, anywhere - from her mannerisms to her halting speech, to the desperate look in her eyes as she struggles to understand things clearly beyond her ability. Ryan Downey is heart-wrenching as Alan, who spirals toward a breakdown while grasping onto his modest but still unattainable dreams. I even had moments of wanting to like violent, alcoholic, possible rapist Joe, thanks to an outstanding performance by Anthony Green. And Lorraine Bahr is reliably exceptional in everything.
If you're looking for an escapist play to make you feel happy about the world, this isn't it. THE CRACKWALKER is bleak and hard to watch (at times, excruciating). But it's the kind of show that does exactly what theatre is supposed to do - foster empathy, start a conversation, and force us to examine the world we live in.
THE CRACKWALKER runs at Sunnyside Community House through September 30 (more details here). Tickets are available on a sliding scale from $12 to $25. I highly recommend you see it and then take whatever you feel the experience was worth (I guarantee it will be much more than $25) and donate it to an organization that provides services and support for vulnerable populations in Portland. You'll find a list of these organizations in your program.
Photo credit: Megean McBride