George F. Walker’s new ‘Her Inside Life’ probes the perceptions and realities of mental illness

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Tony Munch and Catherine Fitch, Her Inside Life (photo by John Gundy)

How well do we know our neighbours? What are their stories? These are questions that Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor by award-winning Canadian playwright and screenwriter George F. Walker pose about the people we live alongside and encounter from day to day. Curious about the answers? Low Rise Productions and Leroy Street Theatre, supported by The Storefront Theatre, are currently presenting the world premiere of Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor as a double bill that completes the Parkdale Palace Trilogy, which began with the critical and audience hit The Chance, presented at The Assembly Theatre last fall.

Her Inside Life is about a woman named Violet facing internal struggles with mental health and external struggles with our system of justice. Gemini-Award winning actor Catherine Fitch calls it a “privilege” to play Violet, who acknowledges her mental health issues, but also feels that her world, her family and her own sense of truth and reality are spinning out of her control. After finding herself in the “unenviable position of having to take matters into her own hands to rid the world of an evil-doer”, she is placed under the supervision of the courts, a psychiatric social worker and her daughter (played by Sarah Murphy-Dyson and Lesley Robertson respectively). When Leo, the man Violet thought she had killed is released from prison, she “tries desperately to get her truth recognized” and to prove that she is not crazy, as she has long maintained.

“Mental health and how we care for those suffering with mental illness has come to the forefront of societal concerns in recent years,” observes Andrea Wasserman, who directs Her Inside Life. She notes that, while urban centres boast greater resources for the mentally ill, those resources and the supports they offer remain far from adequate. Increased awareness and access have yielded some attitudinal change and increased empathy, “but truly – there are many of us who will not be confronted with the reality of those living with mental illness and the conditions under which their day-to-day concerns are governed.”

Catherine Fitch as Violet in Her Inside Life (photo by John Gundy)

A simple walk – with eyes wide open –  along the streets of Toronto corrects this gap: “Just strolling down Queen West, we see many fellow Torontonians in various states of need. For the most part, we walk past and try not to engage. We empathize from a safe distance.” Her Inside Life can be viewed as just one of countless stories of Torontonians living with mental illness, and it provides a window into the myriad of daunting challenges that Violet must overcome: “challenges with her own perception of reality, challenges with the government systems and programs, and challenges in connecting with the people around her who are making assumptions based purely on her mental illness. By making the story personal and allowing us to laugh and celebrate the human spirit along the way, the show asks us to empathize more and care more. Now that we know Violet, mental health is no longer a faceless issue or one reserved for the huddled figure at Queen and Lansdowne.”

Ms Fitch became a part of the project a couple of years ago, when George Walker sent the play to her and husband Tony Munch (who is playing Leo in this production). Walker had written the play with them in mind – “which was just an incredible honour”.  They met Andrea Wasserman a year ago, and that started the process of getting the play produced. “I have always felt a connection to George Walker’s writing, from the time I was a student in university to this very moment,” enthuses Ms Fitch. “I can’t really explain it – it is a very deep connection with a writer who, until relatively recently, I didn’t know personally, but something about his characters has always spoken to me. I am grateful to George and the whole team at the Assembly Theatre to have the chance to give ‘Violet’ her voice in this production.”

Walker, of course, is known for his sympathetic but satiric explorations of modern urban life, which have yielded a prolific output of award-winning plays. For instance, The Chance debuted less than six months ahead of Fierce, which premiered just this past February, and both were directed by longtime Walker collaborator Wes Berger, who also directs Kill the Poor. In addition to his thirty-plus plays, Walker has created screenplays for several television series, including This is Wonderland, The Line, and Living in Your Car. His multi-layered plots require the audience to pay attention. Nothing is what it seems, and in an instant, hilarity can turn into heartache, or absurdity . . . or both. Beneath the satire is deliberate provocation: we are meant to question norms, and to become conscious of the ways we respond to, influence, and even damage social systems.

Tony Munch and Catherine Fitch, Her Inside Life (photo by John Gundy)

Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor are connected by geography (they take place in the same low-rise apartment complex in Toronto’s Parkdale area), but they are also connected thematically, as is much of Walker’s work. Ms Wasserman encapsulates that theme as a “celebration of the underclass; the great forgotten people that exist in all cities and who face a daily struggle against their circumstances.“ Her choice of words is deliberate: “I call it a celebration because of the way these characters find morsels of triumph over such adversity. Even as they confront challenges, watch their best-laid plans and well-intended attempts to move forward become hindered by a suffocating shadow of lack (lack of confidence, lack of resources, lack of opportunity), Walker’s characters manage to create and define their own sense of hope and success. We see them struggle, fail, hurt each other through misguided actions, but we also witness moments of deep and honest connection that leave us with hope for their ultimate happiness.”

And right here, right now, such celebrations matter. Ms Wasserman notes that Toronto is facing a myriad of interconnected social crises, including economic disparity, substance abuse and mental health (to name just a few that find representation in Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor.) “By telling stories through the lens of those suffering, we can increase our understanding and ultimately our desire to help. That is the magic of these plays. They are stories from the dark underclass of our communities – the people who are swept under the rug by the ruling 1% – that show us moments of light in such a way that can inspire empathy and change.”  For directors and audiences alike, it is a “glorious experience” to work on a plays like this, and “for audiences, it is an education, an entertainment, a punch in the gut and a belly laugh.”

Ms Fitch’s sincere hope is for the audience to depart the theatre with deepened awareness, curiosity and empathy for the people they may encounter on the streets of Toronto: “Everyone has a story. It may be a cliché, but of course there is a very real truth there as well.” As Walker writes at the end of Her Inside Life, we are “All in our own ways struggling for answers, all in our own ways trying to make the best of very complex circumstances”. This struggle is intense and engrossing, but far from gloomy. Ms Fitch closes our discussion by reassuring that Walker’s writing mirrors life: “tragedy walks hand in hand with comedy.  And there is some very funny stuff in this play! I really hope they enjoy it.”

News You Can Use

Tony Munch as Leo in Her Inside Life (photo courtesy of Low Rise Productions)

What: Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor, by George F. Walker, part of the Parkdale Palace Trilogy

  • Her Inside Life features Catherine Fitch, Tony Munch, Sarah Murphy-Dyson and Lesley Robertson; directed by Andrea Wasserman; produced by Low Rise Productions
  • Kill the Poor features Al Bernstein, Tony Lea, Anne van Leeuwen, Chandra Galasso and Craig Henderson; directed by Wes Berger; produced by Leroy Street Theatre

When: On stage until Sunday Nov 18th. Both shows run every night, alternating start times of 7 pm or 9 pm.

Where: The Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario

Tickets and Info: TheAssemblyTheatre.com

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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