Though he's been at it for four decades, playwright George F. Walker experiences each theatrical opening the way someone else might experience driving through a cement wall. "It feels good to get on the other side alive," he admits. Then, reconsidering: "Kinda."
People in Toronto have their opinions of the Riverdale native and east-end chronicler, one of Canada's most prolific dramatists. But so far, hometown responses to his black comedy Dead Metaphor – which just premiered in Toronto following last year's critically acclaimed run with the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco – haven't been too distressing for the playwright. At home and abroad, audiences have connected with Mr. Walker's trenchantly funny script, which follows the trials of a young sniper freshly returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistanas he struggles to secure employment and reassimilate into the life he'd left behind.
The play had been originally slated to run in the 2012-2013 Factory Theatre season roster. When the company let go of long-time artistic director Ken Gass, Mr. Walker pulled the production in protest. Now Dead Metaphor is running with Mr. Gass' relaunched Canadian Rep Theatre, with backing from Mirvish. To Mr. Walker, this is nothing short of a triumph.
"When I pulled the play, I wasn't disgruntled – I was furious," he says. But he maintains that the Mirvishes have been supportive of his and Mr. Gass' vision; they're accomplishing what they set out to, albeit a year later than planned. "So," says Mr. Walker, "it feels good." It appears that this particular cement wall comes equipped with some give.
Were you surprised when Mirvish jumped on board for this production?
I'm not. John Karastamatis handles the off-Mirvish program, and he and I go way back to the early Factory [Theatre] days. I know he gets the work. I'm not even surprised that David Mirvish wanted to do it. He's got a big heart, and a very large point of view of the world. It's a nice fit, I think.
Have Toronto audiences
responded any differently than in San Francisco?
A lot of people are more familiar with my work here, but I think it's basically the same response. It might be a tad more intense here because the production is a tad more intense, but they get it. They get the political argument, they get the desperation. [Canadians and Americans] went through the same experience of guys not being able to get work even though they're highly qualified. There's something that freaks people out about them. That's something that both audiences share – the war and returning soldiers. And there are some poverty issues in the play as well, talking about the destruction of the middle class. That's happening down there and here. We have a lot in common.
Speaking of class, your home neighbourhood of Riverdale seems like it might be on the cusp of some substantial demographic upheaval. They've up and sold Jilly's!
It's interesting. There's a Starbucks right across the street from my Riverdale high school, Riverdale Collegiate, but there are whole stretches of Gerrard and Leslieville that haven't changed in 10 or 15 years. The working class there is entrenched and not doing so well because unions have betrayed them and governments have betrayed them, everyone's betrayed them. And the middle class has joined them. [The sale of Jilly's] is a sign of the times, but in 10 years it will be the time. It will just be the world.
Your work is very concerned with these themes, of inequality and the day-to-day hardships of ordinary people.
For theatre to be compelling, it has to to with people's lives. I think sometimes people will go to the theatre and it has nothing to do with their lives and they go, 'Oh, okay. This is satisfying on one level, but not a deeper level that I might be able to actually relate to some of the characters.' So that's all I'm concerned with, is staying alert and writing about what's going on.