Theatre

Alzheimer’s play proves Rosa Labordé’s aim is True

Most of us dread the thought of losing our memory, but there are always a few recollections we’d be happy to erase. (Personally, I’d love to forget I ever saw Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.) In the, ahem, memorable 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman posited a scientific means of obliterating unhappy memories. In Rosa Labordé’s gripping new play True, a New Age-y musician and recovering addict named Franco keeps attempting the same thing in a more low-tech way—with therapeutic rituals meant to clear the air and bury the past. He’s also a fan of the “re-do.” When a situation gets tense or ugly, he tries to rewind the action and start again on a better tack.

By the end of this short but emotionally and intellectually packed drama, Labordé uses the re-do herself, to heartbreaking effect.

True, first produced this summer for the Toronto Fringe, is, as I write, back for an encore run at its original site-specific venue, the Citizenry Café on Queen Street West. In the play, the venue stands in for a family-run café-cum-clothing store. Marie, also an ex-addict, and husband Franco manage the (non-alcoholic) bar up front; Marie’s younger sister Anita sells apparel in the back; and older sis Cece adorns the premises with her ikebana floral arrangements. (I guess you’ve got to diversify to afford those Queen West rents.)

Where Franco is into forgetting the past, Marie is the opposite: she’s the sort of person who boycotts all things Italian just because she was once flashed by a pervert at Rome’s Fontana di Trevi and the authorities did nothing about it. But the three sisters share far more dreadful memories, which are dredged up when their estranged father Roy comes wandering into the place after-hours.

Roy, benign and bewildered—and played by Layne Coleman with startling authenticity—is now a victim of Alzheimer’s. He enters wearing pyjamas under his coat and clutching a handwritten note of unknown authorship, which scolds his daughters for abandoning their father. Due to his decaying memory, his conversation runs in loops, the same observations and questions recurring again and again. Most painful is his repeated query about Cece’s odd brain-injury-related speech impairment and how she acquired it.

What do you do with a dad who was an alcoholic, a philanderer and physically abusive? Should his children continue to shut him out of their lives now that he’s ailing and helpless? Marie abhors him, Cece still seems traumatized by him, but Anita—who, as the youngest, probably remembers him the least—is inclined to pity him and invite him to dinner. Franco, who has never met Roy, finds him likable, in part because the old man shares his love of music.

As the sisters argue, Labordé inserts flashbacks to their most horrifying memory of their father, replayed three times from each of their three slightly different perspectives. But the playwright is interested in more than just the vagaries and fragilities of memory; her characters also make allusions to parallel universes and alternate realities, those concepts beloved of theoretical physicists and science-fiction writers. It may put you in mind of John Mighton’s haunting 1990 play Possible Worlds, which will be getting a much-deserved revival at the Stratford Festival next year.

And speaking of Stratford, it’s impossible to watch True without also thinking of the festival’s current headline show, King Lear. Labordé’s play could, in fact, be an alternate-reality Lear, in which the addled father is more sinning than sinned against, while his daughters have good cause to defy him—although Anita, the Cordelia figure, still shows compassion.

Not to compare apples and oranges, but I found Coleman’s Lear-like Roy more moving than Colm Feore’s bravura portrayal of the mad king in Stratford’s production. His Roy is funny (insofar as dementia can be considered amusing), pathetic and, in the flashbacks, frightening. But as much as he may be despised, it is clear he is already paying for his past behaviour in the moments when he tries desperately to grasp at the memories flitting through the ruins of his crumbling mind.

Coleman is a fixture of the Toronto theatre community (he’s a past artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille), who was most recently seen last year as a snarky aging hipster in Linda Griffiths’ Heaven Above Heaven Below. His program note says he’s received four Dora nominations for acting; while it’s pretty early in the season to be thinking about awards, his performance here ought to net him a fifth.

Ingrid Rae Doucet, Sabrina Grdevich and Shannon Taylor provide both striking contrasts and a convincing sibling dynamic as the three sisters. Grdevich’s forceful Marie is the extremist, whose treatment of Roy comes close to cruelty when she decides to play along with his delusion that she is her late mother. Taylor’s sweet Anita is the moderate one. Between them, Doucet’s damaged Cece looks as delicate as her flower arrangements and, despite her stammer, says much with her injured-animal eyes. Scott McCord is appealing as the weak-willed and slightly flaky Franco, who seems at his happiest banging out rock ballads on the piano.

Labordé has directed her own play, making the most of the café’s long, narrow space by having the majority of the action occur near the bar up front, virtually in our faces, while characters retreat and cool down in the “upstage” clothing store and on a back patio that effectively becomes a backdrop. Trevor Schwellnus’s abrupt shifts in lighting and Thomas Ryder-Payne’s ominous sound design catapult us into the family’s traumatic past.

The Toronto-based Labordé first grabbed attention in 2006 with her Tarragon Theatre hit Léo, a play set in Allende-era Chile, which made the GG shortlist and went on to be produced nationally. I haven’t seen her subsequent work, apart from Marine Life (SummerWorks 2012), which was disappointing. True has some weak spots and a loose thread or two, but with this ambitious and thought-provoking take on the “memory play” Labordé proves that she’s still a writer to be reckoned with.

True runs to Sept. 13. www.criminaltheatre.com

Photo: True stars (left to right) Ingrid Rae Doucet, Shannon Taylor, Layne Coleman, Sabrina Grdevich and Scott McCord. (Photo courtesy of Criminal Theatre)

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