Review: World Premiere of CASEY AND DIANA is a Breathtaking and Poignant Addition to the Stratford Festival Season

Sean Arbuckle delivers a devastating and captivating performance.

By: Jun. 04, 2023
Review: World Premiere of CASEY AND DIANA is a Breathtaking and Poignant Addition to the Stratford Festival Season

The world premiere of Nick Green’s play CASEY AND DIANA had its opening night at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre on Thursday. This production – directed by Andrew Kushnir – is incredibly powerful. Festival veteran Sean Arbuckle is devastating and captivating in what is quite possibly one of the best performances to ever grace this stage, and he is fully supported by an outstanding cast around him.

CASEY AND DIANA is set at Casey House – a Toronto hospice established in 1988, serving people with HIV/AIDS. It is now a specialty hospital, but at the time this play is set in, it was specifically a hospice providing end of life care for those with AIDS. This fictional story is set around a real-life event – the 1991 visit of Diana, Princess of Wales. Sean Arbuckle portrays Thomas, the resident of Casey House who has been there the longest. He has seen four different roommates come and go, and he has chosen to embrace his current situation with humour and grace. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his bad days – especially when confronted with his sister Pauline (the always fantastic Laura Condlln), who he felt abandoned and betrayed by when she could no longer cope with the prospect of losing loved ones to AIDS, and struggled to move past her own fear of the disease. Thomas’ anticipation of Diana’s visit in 7 days is matched only by his determination to still be alive for it. He takes things day by day, step by step, breath by breath as he focuses on this exciting moment while contending with his own mortality.

Arbuckle brings dignity and an almost devastating charm to Thomas. He gives us a man who knows his potential and also knows that his world is now mostly just the small room in a Toronto hospice that he is eventually going to die in. Thomas may be a fictional character, but he is a representation of so many people who we lost to AIDS. Arbuckle brings a passion to this piece that makes it clear he is carrying those sould with him each night.

Thomas’ new roommate, Andre (an excellent Davinder Malhi) is of a different generation, but is equally excited by the prospect of meeting Princess Di. It is in fact, the single thing that brightens his mood as he struggles to adjust to the reality of having just moved into the place where he is going to die. Andre is initially completely closed off and feeling hopeless and angry. The audience then gets to see more of who he is as he slowly starts to feel some hope again. Hope is almost the seventh character in this play. It is at times almost as scary and enigmatic of a concept as death is, and at other times, it is quite literally the point of everything. This play is in many ways about each character’s relationship with hope.

This play is also the story of Vera and Marjorie, a nurse and a volunteer at Casey House, played by Sophia Walker and Linda Kash respectively. The compassion and dedication of these two women is on full display and both performers succeed in demonstrating the inner struggle that their characters are trying to push aside in order to help others die with dignity.

Also playing at the Festival this season is RENT – which is set a few years after the events of this play, and also focuses on people living with HIV and AIDS. I mention this because that message of living with, not dying from AIDS is an important part of the narrative in RENT and is a mentality that the characters in this play must grapple with in a different way. Thomas and Andre are in hospice care because they are indeed dying and Vera and Marjorie are working at Casey House because they recognize the importance of helping someone with a terminal illness with what is essentially, the occupation of dying. It is not simply a thing that happens, and people become vulnerable and frail and require care. The ways that Marjorie and Vera process this and contend with that desire to focus on living with AIDS whilst recognizing that those they are supporting are indeed dying, are highlighted in an incredibly moving scene between the two after Vera confronts Marjorie about her inappropriate boundaries in her attempts to support Andre. Marjorie sees Vera as closed off, and Vera sees Marjorie as too attached. The balance that the staff and volunteers at Casey House and spaces like it were and are required to strike is such a delicate and personal one, and the words, direction, and performances here really allow us to acknowledge that.

Krystin Pellerin has a different challenge from everyone else. She is not only portraying a real person, but an incredibly iconic one at that. On one hand, this must be helpful in terms of designer Joshua Quinlan getting her outfits just right, and Pellerin being able to nail Diana's mannerisms and posture – which she absolutely does. On the other hand, given the context of the role Diana plays in this story, there isn’t really an opportunity for Pellerin to add her own creative liberties to this role. She is essentially and intentionally playing more the idea of Diana. What we see of Diana is what the residents of Casey House see, and imagine her to be. Pellerin and Kushnir honour this and honour her in a portrayal that is dignified and classy – and worthy of the icon status that Thomas and Andre put upon Diana.

The Studio Theatre is already an intimate space, but by the end of this play, you could hear a pin drop as the entire opening night audience was holding its breath. We all inhaled and exhaled along with Thomas – collectively breathing life into a play about death and thus do our part to make it clear it is in fact about so much more.

CASEY AND DIANA plays at the Studio Theatre until June 17th.

For Tickets, visit: Click Here

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann


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