Theatre Review: GCTC’s Ordinary Days proves to be an extraordinary stage experience

A scene from Ordinary Days at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Photo: Andrew Alexander

The key to life in the big city? Ignore the big and celebrate the everyday.

It sounds trite, but Ordinary Days – Adam Gwon’s thoughtfully empathetic chamber musical about four young people adrift in New York City – is just the opposite of pedestrian, as the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s winning production of his show proves.

Directed by Eric Coates, the sung-through piece tracks the lives of two women and two men as they grapple with loneliness in the city and struggle for everything from artistic recognition to freedom from a past that warps the present.

Gwon fleshes out their stories with humour and that essential post-modern ingredient, irony. There’s poignancy, but it’s measured and appropriate. Most of all, there’s credibility because Gwon successfully locates the universal in the particular – in this case something of the human condition in the urbanized, hurly-burly life of 21st century millennials.

Katie Ryerson plays Deb, a striving, anxious woman from “the middle of nowhere” who’s gone from a dead-end job to the equally dead-end pursuit of a graduate degree. She assumes, without having really thought it through, that her studies will somehow move her along the path toward something bigger and more fulfilling.

Alas, she leaves her thesis research on the subway, where it’s found by Warren (Zach Counsil, whose invariable generosity of performance seems genetic). A struggling if not exactly committed artist, Warren is the show’s touchstone: a detached observer of the pell-mell pace of New York City, a man who discovers life lessons every time he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The lost and found thesis research – you know the connection it’s doing to help establish, don’t you? – could have felt contrived, a clumsy plot device. But like everything else in his show, including the characters’ discovery that life is something you’ve been ignoring in the very act of pursuing it, Gwon gives the thesis research connection a seamlessness that makes it feel as natural as breathing.

Gwon also plays with symmetries in pleasing fashion. While Deb and Warren get to know each other and themselves better, the other two do the same. However, the results in the latter case become as congested as Broadway Avenue on a rainy night.

When we meet them, Jason (Gab Desmond) is moving in with his girlfriend Claire (Jennifer Cecil). He wants companionship and love, but Claire, as we subsequently learn, still carries with her the hurt of a cataclysmic event and fears again giving her heart to anyone.

At one lovely moment, Jason gazes from their apartment window at a small green garden, one of his favourite things in this city. That sight in turn leads him back to a treasured childhood memory and forward to the place he most longs to be but can’t penetrate: inside Claire’s locked heart.

Gwon has told us less about Jason than we might like, but this scene, as well executed by GCTC as it was beguilingly conceived by its writer, tells us much about the couple and helps lay the groundwork for what’s coming.

The small, compelling details of these four lives against the backdrop of a big, impersonal city (“What am I doing in a 100-storey city?” asks Jason at one point, when his question is really, “Who am I in a 100-storey city?”) are played out on a minimalist set by Seth Gerry. In fact, the writing and ensemble performances are strong enough that we could have done without the projections: sketches of the cityscape, Central Park and other locales meant to underscore where each scene occurs.

What we couldn’t have done without is Wendy Berkelaar, the on-stage pianist and music director. Her fluid playing colours, leads and follows the singing as Gwon’s melodies veer off in unexpected directions just as the lives of these four young people do, particularly when they open themselves up to what life has been offering all along.

And ordinary life, it turns out, is something to sing about.

Ordinary Days is a GCTC production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until Nov. 19. 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.