Directed by Eda Holmes
Written by Damien Atkins
Starring Seana McKenna, Meg Roe, Tony Munch, Philippa Domville and Brendan Murray
At Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto
In rating Damien Atkins's new play Lucy, I'm splitting the difference between a four-star second act and a one-star first act. In this play about the relationship between an estranged mother and her 13-year-old autistic daughter, Atkins sails close to the wind of maudlin sentiment before finding a provocative voice that shakes the audience awake.
Atkins seems to like tackling difficult topics. In his first play, Good Mother, which was produced at Stratford in 2000, Seana McKenna played a supermom who suffers a debilitating stroke. That immensely moving play focused on family relationships coping with a severe malfunction.
In Lucy, McKenna is Vivian, an anthropologist who long ago gave up custody of her daughter (Meg Roe) to former husband Gavin (Tony Munch). In this play, the malfunction is McKenna having to assume care of Lucy (who is named after the famous stone age skeleton) when Gavin wants a break from the pressures of looking after his daughter so he can pursue a relationship with his new girlfriend. Also in the cast are Philippa Domville as Vivian's research assistant Julia, and Brendan Murray as Morris, Lucy's therapist.
The problem with the first act is the predictability of the situation. In paint-by-numbers fashion, we witness Gavin's plea, Vivian's objections, Lucy's arrival, Vivian's problems coping with Lucy and, finally, mother/daughter bonding. It could be any example of Hollywood schlock.
Even Lucy's periodic revelations to the audience of thoughts she can't communicate in real life seem routine.
In the dynamite second act, Atkins throws out a provocative, even subversive theory about autism. Anthropologist Vivian begins to believe that autism is an evolutionary advance, and Atkins gives McKenna strong dialogue that renders a plausible argument for this hypothesis. This puts Vivian on a collision course with Julia, Morris and Gavin, who all believe in therapeutic intervention to try to normalize an autistic child.
McKenna is one of Canada's greatest actresses, but in the first act she is all sputters, stutters and sharp-voice commentary. In the second act, she comes into her own when she becomes a passionate advocate for leaving autistic individuals to their own devices. She dominates the stage, swept up in the power of her convictions. Roe makes a strong stab at portraying the autistic Lucy with her shuddery fingers, jumpy leg, veiled eyes and minimal speech patterns (except when she is talking to the audience).
Domville, a strong actress in her own right, is an odd choice for Julia, rather like putting a cannon where only a rifle is needed. She is just not believable as anyone's underling. As for the stiff Munch, he seems to be playing at, rather than playing from, and only at brief moments does his character ring true. Only Murray in his therapist's role has any credibility, showing both compassion and reason by turns.
Director Eda Holmes has to find the right balance between reality and melodrama and, for the most part, holds the line.
Teresa Przybylski's bland but functional set has modernist convertible furniture that can be transformed at will.
Above is an open space with DNA spirals, or perhaps ribbons of neurons.
Visually, the play's impact is negligible, although Przybylski's costumes do suit the characters.
In his script, Atkins gives us little information about what brought Vivian and Gavin together in the first place, which would have been interesting. What he does include are important insights into autism. This didactic dialogue, however, takes away from the theatricality of the subject. In the final analysis, the play is part melodrama, part documentary, part agent provocateur.
Atkins, however, redeems himself with the last 15 minutes or so, which are profoundly moving. Now, if only the whole play could have been as strong.
Lucy continues at Berkeley Street Theatre until Apr. 14.