It’s not the freshest of dramatic situations — two troubled young people face another moment of crisis in their lives and are on the verge of taking a very wrong turn.
So why — we might ask ourselves — is it worth spending even an hour in their company? Surely, these will be recognizable types pursuing useless, self-destructive lives? Surely, we’ll be able to predict what will happen: either the promise of redemption or else a further descent into the mire. No real surprises there.
So we’re apt to give a sigh of resignation and figure we’re in for another dose of “socially significant” theatre from playwright George F. Walker.
But then Walker confounds us. In the first place, his forthright but captivating play, Moss Park, is devoid of the quirky self-indulgence for which his more devoted admirers must sometimes make excuses: instead he has delivered one of his most disciplined and exhilarating pieces. Secondly, he has created two splendidly alive characters in Tina, the single, near destitute mother who has just discovered she’s pregnant again, and Bobby, her shambling and feckless boyfriend.
And thirdly, GCTC is housing a knock-out production of this play, which comes to us from Vancouver’s Green Thumb Theatre which for 40 years now has been producing stage material that examines social issues relevant to the lives of children, youth and young adults.
A play like Moss Park — driven by adult situations and laced with R-rated language — may seem an odd fit for one of the most illustrious children’s theatres in North America. But, in point of fact, it testifies to the seriousness of one particular Green Thumb initiative — to attract young people in their late teens and early twenties back to the theatre.
When the Vancouver company launched this new program several years ago, artistic director Patrick McDonald said this was the toughest audience to crack. George F. Walker became a key component in Green Thumb’s strategy to succeed: for the first time in his career, the Toronto playwright accepted a commission to do a script called Tough in support of this challenging Green Thumb mandate. Now, he’s back with a sequel in Moss Park.
McDonald, who once led Ottawa’s GCTC himself, has directed this play with the vigour which the material demands — ensuring a crackling pace for the whiplash naturalism of Walker’s dialogue, ensuring that its hilarious moments of comedy clearly arise out of character, while also giving focus to the sobering realities faced by Tina and Bobby both in the present and in their immediate future. And because the play is so character-driven and Tina and Bobby so appallingly credible, the situations they face, although familiar, achieve their own truth and urgency.
The play happens outdoors in an urban area redolent of bad public housing policies. Designer Martin Conboy has provided these aging youngsters with two scabrous park benches, flanked by a wire fence behind which there’s a junkyard. The junkyard’s contents include an abandoned teddy bear, a glum symbol of abandoned childhood dreams in a culture where such dreaming is dangerously futile.
There’s the suggestion here that Tina and Bobby are both prisoners and victims of a system that no longer works for them. But Walker isn’t really revealing his bleeding liberal heart with such implications: indeed in the case of Bobby, ably portrayed by Graeme McComb as the kind of likeable but exasperating knucklehead that you alternately want to slap and to hug, the onus is clearly on him to pull himself together, quit associating with criminal low-lifers and show some responsibility to his girlfriend and child.
But the script is honest enough to suggest that Bobby may not make it — partly because of his fecklessness, partly because the safety net of public policy doesn’t really work for people like him.
If there is salvation, it will come from Tina, portrayed here by Emma Slipp with a feisty, street-smart urgency. She’s under no illusion about just how bad things are for her and her child right now — to the point of worrying about a roof over her head, even the next meal. She yearns for a better life — and it’s a focused, realistic yearning in contrast to the immature fantasizing of Bobby who’s incapable of holding down a real job and mumbles that he doesn’t much like working anyway. Both are losers, but they’re not identical losers. In the midst of all her distress, Tina still sees the possibility of a better life if she can bring Bobby round.
But how much of a better life? Reassuring answers don’t come easily. So are Bobby and Tina self-made victims? Victims of society? Or maybe victims of some ghastly cosmic joke? Take your pick.
Moss Park by George F. Walker
A Production of Green Thumb Theatre, Vancouver
Directed by Patrick McDonald
Set and light design by Martin Conboy
Tina: Emma Slipp
Bobby: Graeme McComb
Grand Canadian Theatre Company to Feb. 8