Review: CASEY AND DIANA at Soulpepper

Deeply human play about a royal visit may become a modern Canadian classic

By: Feb. 13, 2024
Review: CASEY AND DIANA at Soulpepper
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Imagine being sick with a mysterious illness that we didn’t really understand much about as a society. The illness ravages internal systems, a death sentence that betrays the integrity of your body and your sense of self. Imagine, too, that people believed that, now, your very presence was poison, your simple touch anathema. Essentially quarantined, you find your world becoming smaller and smaller, your ability to connect to others fading as friends die and family members turn away from you, refusing to acknowledge that you once existed.

Pandemic-weary, many of us may find this situation to seem more like reality than a thought experiment. But, unlike COVID, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s could not be spread simply by being in the same room as a person who had it, or holding a hand. Yet, as the death toll rose, AIDS patients were faced not only with a massive tide of bigotry, but the further loss of the connections they had left.

In 1991, Toronto’s Casey House, the only free-standing hospice for people with AIDS (named for founding activist and writer June Callwood’s son Casey, who was killed by a drunk driver), received some exciting news right out of a storybook: a princess was coming to visit. Princess Diana used her fame to highlight the cost of the AIDS crisis, literally reaching out to AIDS patients, hearing their stories while holding their hands. Diana’s simple demonstration of kind, decent behaviour went a long way toward cheering up patients and convincing the general public to see them as people.

Playwright Nick Green’s CASEY AND DIANA, which premiered this year at The Stratford Festival before its current three-week run at Soulpepper, dramatizes this historic moment, but it’s not really a documentary or biopic.

Yes, CASEY AND DIANA is set in Casey House and features Katherine Gauthier as a sympathetic and regal Princess Diana. And it’s nominally about Princess Diana’s visit to Casey House, but that’s really only a small aspect of the story. What it’s really about is holding on: the ability of hope to make us keep that hold a little bit longer; the way we physically and metaphorically reach out to other people; how we hold fast to the past and how it shapes our identities.

Green’s play, here directed by Andrew Kushnir, is a terrific achievement in its portrayal of the complexity of emotion surrounding an AIDS diagnosis, the person’s gradual decline and death, and the way it all affects not only the individual, but the community that surrounds them. Its smart, urgent structure, indelible characters, and alternately witty and wrenching dialogue make it a highlight of this or any theatre season and a must-see. But what really stands out is its great, gentle humanity in how it treats all its characters, fragile, wounded people just trying to reach out and grab hold of each other.

Witty, bitchy, and gregarious, patient Thomas (Sean Arbuckle) rules the roost in the crowded attic of Casey House (set designed by Joshua Quinlan), which, similar to the play’s motif, is a bit cramped but lets plenty of light in through purple and rose-tinted stained glass windows. Thomas is a sitcom star with a tragic heart; Arbuckle’s performance is stunning, as he shows us Thomas’ arch façade and his brittle vulnerability at alternate moments, sometimes even simultaneously.

He’s ready with a quip for every occasion, but evening “sundowning” locks him helplessly into a past where he begs for a popsicle to slake a thirst that’s never quenched. He’s stubborn to the extreme in insisting that his sister Pauline (Laura Condlln, in a 90s poodle perm that recalls her role in last year’s Fifteen Dogs) has broken his trust and will never darken his doorstep again, but in a pitch-perfect scene that matches the sacredness of forgiveness with the profanity of swearing in church, he lets his righteous fury drop for a moment to show how much he truly misses her. And, most of all, he’s resolute: there’s a week until Diana shows up, and before then, Nobody Dies.

The tight structure of Green’s play takes us through that week, tantalizing us with the hope that Thomas’ wish might come true, and each of the characters, complex and hurting, might be granted their one perfect moment. The entire cast shines as people who come into conflict despite—or perhaps, because—their hearts are all in the right place. Vera (Sophia Walker) is a nurse who’s learned to hide her pain at the inevitability of her patients’ decline, and that caring too much is a recipe for disaster.

Marjorie (Linda Kash), a volunteer in the wake of her best friend’s death from AIDS, demonstrates that latter lesson in spades. As cheerful Marjorie pours her heart into her work and her foot into her mouth, Kash gives her a sort of salt-of-the-earth, Midwestern aunt charm, except she’s more likely to bring in “gay eggs” for brunch instead of hotdish. Condlln’s Pauline may be too fond of therapy-speak for Thomas’ taste, but she’s entirely believable as his flighty, beleaguered sister. She also perfectly captures the fear of a person watching a world collapse from the outside looking in.

And new patient Andre (Davinder Malhi, giving baby Freddie Mercury vibes) is also the new kid in town, abandoned by and abandoning his family to live the gay life in the big city, only to have his life come crashing down around him just as it’s beginning. His initial anger and lack of gratitude to those providing him care give way to a sense of curiosity about and community with those around him, and both feel refreshing and real; no matter how much the characters hope, all they can do is be a found family in the present until some of the family dies and the next member moves into the empty bed.

Of course, Diana appears, but this isn’t The Crown: floating in between reality and a hopeful dream, she’s largely a sweet, observant cipher, generously listening and responding as she thinks her companion needs to hear. Green smartly refuses to make the play about her or try to accurately capture what she was thinking, making her less of a character in her own right and more a projection of the other characters’ desires and a way to hear their stories.

Watching in 2023, we know that death is coming not just for the residents of Casey House, but for the young princess herself, who will be gone within the decade. This dramatic irony hangs over the play, reminding us that it can be equally deadly to be scrutinized as ignored.

But the dramatic moment of kindness and hope she inspired for patients lives on, and CASEY AND DIANA, with a real chance to become a modern Canadian classic, should live on, too.

Photo of Sean Arbuckle and Katherine Gauthier by Dahlia Katz