Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
I connect with Deborah Drakeford during Canadian mental health awareness week. We’re discussing a new production of George F. Walker’s play And So It Goes, which portrays a family coping with their child’s mental illness. The versatile and warm Drakeford plays the role of Gwen, the mother of Karen (Tyshia Drake), who is living with schizophrenia. Walker is one of Canada’s most prominent and prolific playwrights and screenwriters, renowned for astute social commentary that straddles the razor’s edge of comedy. And who better than Drakeford – fresh off a scene-stealing turn as Nancy in ARC’s Human Animals – to traverse the potholed emotional terrain that comes with playing a distraught parent faced with the severe consequences of her child’s illness?
Drakeford summarizes Walker’s tragicomedy as “a family coping with a mental health crisis, in this case, schizophrenia, and the fallout from that”. Protagonist “Gwen is a mom and a wife under a lot of pressure and doing her best to try and maintain order in a world that is spiraling out of control.” A mother herself, Drakeford is “grateful” that she is not dealing with something as huge as schizophrenia, but she can relate to being a wife and mother who loves her family the best she can. That family also includes Karen’s unemployed father Ned (Dan Willmott), who was a financial advisor before losing his job. Gwen, once a Latin teacher, is a stay-at-home mom. Increasingly despondent about her daughter’s illness and her family’s struggles, she talks things through with her therapist . . . who is the spectre of Kurt Vonnegut (Scott McCulloch). Indeed, the play takes its name from a line in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Through the play, the family unravels in excruciating lockstep with Karen’s deterioration. Ned and Gwen’s finances and prospects dwindle, along with their self-esteem and pride. And with each step downward, there seems less and less that might stay or reverse this family’s downward trajectory.
If none of this sounds remotely funny, it’s likely you’re not familiar with Walker’s work. For no one wrings wry humour from the face of terror quite like he does. And Walker is directing this production, as he did for the play’s premiere at Factory Theatre in 2010 (and as he has for most premieres of his plays since the 1980s), and will tease out the comedic possibilities alongside the humanity and heartbreak of a family in crisis, in a fast-moving script. In fact, one day before the play’s opening, Drakeford admits that what has surprised her most about the play is its pace: “I can’t remember the last time I had so many costume changes in such a quick piece! The scenes are snappy and sharp and zip by. I am still working on keeping up with it!”
The play’s 2010 premiere grabbed headlines because it was the first play that Walker wrote after a 10-year hiatus when he focused on writing for television: This Is Wonderland for CBC-TV and Living in Your Car for TMN. Since 2010, the play has been produced to popular and critical acclaim by Dark and Stormy Productions in Minneapolis/St Paul three years ago. Nine years on, this Toronto revival by the up-and-coming independent Kyanite Theatre company shows just how much the play’s themes continue to resonate, amidst ongoing efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Co-producers Tyshia Drake and Martha Moldaver (who is also the Assistant Director) have likely timed the run to coincide with Mental Health Week in the hope that it supports conversations about mental health and well-being, when the need is urgent and widespread.
One final note…this production is more than the remount of a hit play. It is a vehicle through which accomplished theatre artists are mentoring an exciting new generation of performers. “To be honest, I didn’t realize it was a mentorship situation as I was brought on board later,” Drakeford notes. “But as I listen and watch, I see George give space and time to Tyshia (Drake) as he guides her, not only as an actor but also as a producer. And he gives room to our assistant director Martha Moldaver to use her voice and direct us.” The production is very much an extension of Walker’s regular Toronto workshops that seek to instill confidence in young artists. Not just a play, And So It Goes is a communal and uplifting experience for everyone involved, including Drakeford. And as a teacher and a seasoned actor who has performed in theatres across Canada for over 30 years, Drakeford hopes that she, too, has “allowed others to feel comfortable with me as we build our And So It Goes community based on trust and respect.”
News You Can Use
What: And So It Goes, written and directed by George F. Walker; presented by Kyanite Theatre; Assistant Director: Martha Moldaver
Performed by Tyshia Drake, Deborah Drakeford, Scott McCulloch and Dan Willmott
Creative Team: Costume/Set Design by Kelly Wolf ; Lighting Design by Chin Palipane; Sound Design by Jeremy Hutton; Produced by Tyshia Drake and Martha Moldaver
When: On stage until May 26, 2019
Where: Pia Bauman Scotiabank Studio Theatre, 6 Noble Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: andsoitgoes.brownpapertickets.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019