Review: GUILT: A LOVE STORY at Tarragon Theatre

Flacks' chutzpah-filled solo show is funny and honest

By: Feb. 22, 2024
Review: GUILT: A LOVE STORY at Tarragon Theatre
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Opening a show about how you broke apart your 20-year marriage on Valentine’s Day takes a certain degree of chutzpah. But nobody has ever accused Diane Flacks, who begins GUILT: A LOVE STORY by dancing through the audience with tequila shots on offer, of lacking that quintessential blend of pushy, charismatic assertiveness that gets you far in life.

Flacks, a well-known writer who has provided material for anything from Workin’ Moms to Kids in the Hall, uses her fifth one-woman show to take a long, hard look inward on the guilt that caused her to distance and separate herself from her wife, and her fears of its repercussions on their two children. But, as the cheeky valentines and chocolate hearts on the seats of the opening night audience telegraphed, this isn’t just a pity party. Flacks airs her dirty, guilty laundry with all five stages of grief and a side of sharp, rueful humour.

With two wonderful offspring and a seemingly solid relationship, Flacks hit the midlife crisis wall hard and bounced off, finding the idiosyncrasies in her partnership no longer endearing, but enraging. Seeking new stimulation in an affair, she began to feel trapped in her relationship, and in her guilt about potentially leaving it.

Flacks portrays guilt as a raccoon imprisoned inside one’s chest, an uncomfortable feeling that scratches up your insides. The image is so quintessentially Toronto that it hurts; almost as much, one assumes, as a crazed raccoon desperately trying to claw its way out through your ribs. Raccoon firmly in place, she explores guilt in its various permutations—the guilt of wanting but not doing; the guilt of doing, but not enjoying; the guilt of enjoying but not having; survivor’s guilt, disappointing-your-parents guilt, disappointing-your-children guilt, Jewish guilt—and through a variety of different characters she incorporates into her own story.

Directed by Alisa Palmer in a fast-paced, free-flowing spiel, Flacks’ well-drawn, instantly-recognizable caricatures—that angsty, twitchy, world-weary raccoon; a daffy yoga instructor with un-Zen fixations; a brain specialist who was her own involuntary experiment during a stroke; and even Sigmund Freud himself showing us that sometimes a cigar is really just a thumb—are so funny that it doesn’t really matter that things meander a bit when they appear. The specialist lends a grounding scientific and philosophical perspective, and who doesn’t want to giggle at Freud ineffectually warning the woman cheating on her wife with another woman about the dangers of rampant lesbianism?

However, the 75-minute show does have some sections that feel a bit self-indulgent; hard to avoid, really, in a show where the creator spends abundant time worrying about her self-indulgence. But, strangely, it’s not when she’s sharing her personal experiences, which ring truly and honestly. A moment where her aggrieved mother theatrically moans that she could have been lying dead on the floor in the hours between her daughter’s phone calls before immediately bringing up the Holocaust as an argument-ending trump card, for example, lands beautifully, and a raw scene from the more distant past when Flacks remembers when her frustrations explode in the sacred space of the NICU, raging against a tiny baby whose peril is taking sleep from her own fragile newborn, feels simultaneously daringly unthinkable and matter-of-factly natural.

It’s when Flacks diverges from creating characters or from telling her personal story to a breezier societal overview that things go a bit stale. When she tries to deliver a more universal lecture on the meaning or purpose of guilt, the tequila shots go away and we’re served takes closer to Facebook meme joke fare, the pithy “opinions with Minions” images that wash over the social media landscape.

When she’s bravely baring her own soul, though, Flacks hits hard, particularly when she’s talking about how she finds it easier to find self-love in what she can give to others than in her own being. In the midst of a set by Jung-Hye Kim that’s part desert island, part playground gone awry, and part caution tape, she casts herself as an analogue for the modern Tantalus, suggesting that we are surrounded by pleasures that guilt prevents us from fully experiencing, even if we do consume them.

Guiltily eating my remaining seat chocolate out of my purse at three in the morning like a trapped chest raccoon, I was forced to agree.

Photo of Diane Flacks by Cylla von Tiedemann




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