The Sturdy family is one to which we normally wouldn’t give a second thought.
Sure, the teenage son Joey has a disability and spends his days in a wheelchair. His slurred speech is difficult for an outsider to decipher, although the quick intelligence in his eyes signals his limitations are physical only.
And Joey’s father Jake is not a run-of-the-mill dad. A widower, he’s given up his writing career to care for his only child. He’s a loving man who sometimes lets his resentment show – “I have a severely disabled son. I have no self,” he says in a moment of frustration — but seems incapable of rancour.
Plus there’s Twyla, Jake’s younger sister. She works at some kind of agency and regularly shows up at her brother’s down-at-the-heels home to help care for Joey. But really, with her habitual air of self-protection, why would you pay her any mind?
Ditto the other two people involved with the Sturdys: Rowdy, Joey’s loud, pushy friend, and Robyn, Jake’s Tuesday night paramour who already has a family of her own.
If these folks hung out down the street from you, you’d likely have as little connection with them as you would with the mailman.
Playwright Brad Fraser is not about to permit that disconnection.
In his black comedy Kill Me Now – though “comedy,” however black, doesn’t quite describe this play – Fraser creates from the get-go a contained and intimate world of which we are fully part. The production now at the National Arts Centre gives eloquent voice to Fraser’s words and world, capturing the insider’s perspective so vigorously explored by the playwright on everything from disability to the right to die.
The play ushers us into the Sturdys’ world from the opening moments when we see Jake (Cory Wojcik) bathing Joey (Myles A. Taylor). It’s part of their routine but also intimate and evocative. Touch is like a refrain in this play, simultaneously a bond between the characters and a metaphor for their reaching for something more, something to give meaning in lives that seem often governed by randomness and pain.
As the story advances, we experience Joey’s deep unhappiness at feeling trapped inside his unco-operative body when he hungers for sex and independence. We also experience his joy, love and courage, qualities shared by all the people in his life. Taylor, who has cerebral palsy, is a powerful actor, clearly signalling Joey’s inner life from the confines of a wheelchair.
We also learn how deeply Twyla (Andrea del Campo, who settled into her character after some initial distance on opening night) is entwined with her brother and nephew. She also gets tangled with the infectiously unfiltered, big-hearted Rowdy (the excellent Braiden Houle).
Jake’s girlfriend Robyn (Sharon Bajer) is slowly drawn into this circle, especially when Jake and Joey’s lives are forever altered by an unexpected illness.
Fraser, who only once or twice stumbles with a stilted line, makes clear how all lives are partly disabled. It could be from fetal alcohol syndrome like Rowdy’s or fear of the “other,” as in the case of Robyn who at first is uncomfortable in Joey’s presence. Fraser is also skilled at making us, his audience, uncomfortable and ultimately accepting of actions that are taken out of love. He’s also, incidentally, very good at making us laugh out loud.
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Kill Me Now eschews a Hollywood ending in favour of one that feels real. Ringed round with sadness, that ending is also an affirmation of love and sacrifice. It’s about as powerful a connection as you could want with this family.
Kill Me Now is a Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Winnipeg)/NAC collaboration. It was reviewed Thursday. In the NAC Studio until May 6. Tickets: nac-cna.ca