Review: Fierce offers a believable portrayal of loneliness

Pandora Topp as Maggie and Emmelia Gordon as Jayne in a scene from Fierce. Photo courtesy of Black Sheep Theatre.

Ultimately, we’re all orphans, aren’t we?

Sure, we carve out a place in the world, cultivate relationships, maybe try shielding ourselves from the truth of our loneliness with drugs or booze. But in the end we’re each of us alone.

At least that’s the position of Maggie in George F. Walker’s new two-hander Fierce now at The Gladstone.

Turfed from her home at a tender age to grow up on the streets – “discarded” is how she describes it – Maggie (Pandora Topp) is a tightly wound therapist with an apparent grip on her life. But an undermining sense of abandonment and alienation has never left her. “I don’t really know who I am,” she says at one point.

Maggie’s tenuous hold on certainty becomes clear when Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) shows up at her office for unwanted help. A former school counsellor who’s slipped into drugs and criminality, Jayne has been ordered by the court to undergo therapy in lieu of jail time. Disheveled, touchy, believing the best defence is a good offence, Jayne, too, is a kind of orphan, forever seeking a stable relationship that will help her define who she is.

Acutely perceptive, Jayne quickly spots the turbulent truth beneath Maggie’s taut exterior and starts pushing as many buttons as Maggie, the trained professional, does. “I just think it’s better if we get real,” she tells Maggie early on, substituting a quid pro quo for the normal client-patient relationship. It’s an absurd, funny and revealing set up in which each woman becomes both therapist and client, laying bare herself and the other.

Fierce is classic Walker: short, intense, darkly humorous. Look for a shaft of sunlight if you want, but it’s likely that Maggie and Jayne, who are old hands at self-deception, would say you’re in a state of denial if you believe that the sunlight will prove much more than fitful.

Walker, who also directed this production, has built a kind of remove into Fierce. The narrative moves quickly, as is Walker’s wont, and the increasingly complex relationship between Jayne and Maggie is intriguing, but we’re always the observer to their story. It’s doubtful anyone in the opening night audience shed a tear when Jayne revealed her terrible secret.

Walker is an old hand at this kind of thing. Tough! The End of Civilization, The Burden of Self Awareness: none of them are plays you need a handkerchief for. Rapid dialogue, unexpected interjections of bleak humour, and a dissection of human nature and anxiety that’s as surgical as it’s compassionate keep you always at a slight distance from the characters’ own turmoil. Which, considering what the characters have to endure, is probably a good thing.

The story plays out on a simple set by Dave Dawson and Christine Mathieu, comprising a sofa, a chair, a few accessories. That helps keep attention focused where it belongs: on Jayne, Maggie and their relationship which, unlikely though you’ll think it is if you’ve ever been in therapy yourself, Walker makes credible for the 75 minutes of the play.

On opening night, Gordon had difficulty fully immersing herself in her character at the top of the show. But she and Topp were soon in sync, proving themselves up to the task of telling Walker’s tale and embodying the conundrum voiced by Maggie: “How are we ever going to evolve with all this crazy crap floating around in our heads?”

But maybe evolution is too much to be hoped for. Perhaps it’s more a matter of simply surviving.

Fierce is presented by Black Sheep Theatre and Criminal Girlfriends. It was reviewed Wednesday. At The Gladstone until Oct. 13. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.