“Hold your breath, junior,” Della says, months along in her pregnancy, as she takes a drag on a cigarette. Bad parenting to an unborn child, but then again, the world’s about to end. Why not?
Everything seems coated in dust at The End, at least in the tiny town of Crumb, where journalist Daniel’s (Cody Porter) car breaks down. Try as he might to continue on down the highway, the creeping, sinister fog that rings (and starts to encroach upon) the town seems to direct him right back to its three remaining denizens—waitress Della (Melissa Thingelstad) and prisoners Jerry (James Hamilton) and Curtis (Julien Arnold)—between whom a vendetta of sorts is slowly revealing. There are also visions of a girl in white (Paula Humby), hanging clothes, who sporadically appears.
Cat Walsh’s script—a world première developed through Workshop West’s playwriting unit—picks up three days from the end of the world, though how or why the apocalypse cometh is something never made clear to us. It’s a choice to omit, sure, but one that proves increasingly problematic as the ambitious two-and-a-half-hour play wears on: maybe these characters have already done their wondering about The End, but we’re never offered insights into what they gleaned, or even a sense of what it’s like to realize that this is capital-I It. The context’s omission feels unnaturally absent: to not have at least someone’s thoughts on what is actually the end of the world makes it hard for the gravitas of everyones’ end-days actions to really sink in. When we’re left puzzling about the surface context instead of chasing its deeper resonances, it starts to wear instead of intrigue.
That said: there are some lively, exciting performances here. Arnold, playing against type as a hulking, orange-jumper-clad Curtis, is a sinister, incredibly effective presence, especially once he starts talking. Hamilton’s Jerry is surprisingly affable, a bemused, blue-collar chuckle peppering his words, and has the most sympathetic pull to him. Thingelstad, as Della, finds the nuances of both dark humour and southern sensibility.
Porter, a fine and capable actor, seems a bit stuck in wits-end cynicisms here, which makes it hard to connect with the character even though he’s kind of our de facto protagonist as the stranger in this strange land. That’s partly due to writing—a beleaguered “why?” is a most frequent line of dialogue, and the character proves to be more of a flesh-and-blood MacGuffin, actually, bringing us to Crumb as an accidental stop on a quest of reconciliation, we learn, but the emotional importance of it never quite gels.
Thermodynamics takes place on a gorgeous, epic-sized set, excellently designed and well-lit by Nick Blais, comprised mostly of occasionally twitching telephone poles. They look like Roman columns; maybe it’s a nod to one long-dead civilization at the final rites of another, but regardless, it offers an appropriate visual weightiness to match the situation at hand.
Until Sun, Feb 15 (8 pm; 2 pm matinee on Sat, Feb 7)
Directed by Heather Inglis
Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, $17 – $28