Arts

You’ll catch your death out there

A housebound family awaits the end of the world

You could say that in his new play All Clear,
Eugene Stickland has devised kind of a bleak situation for his characters.
It’s so bleak, in fact, that the funniest line in the entire show
occurs when Delaney Ford (John Wright) tells his teenaged son Bobby (Jesse
Gervais), “Hang in there, kiddo. It’s going to be okay. Going to
be okay.”

You see, Delaney and Bobby have barricaded themselves in their home along
with Delaney’s wife Maddie (Marianne Copithorne), his daughter Billie
(Vanessa Holmes) and, er, “family friend” Braun (Brian Dooley)
following an unexplained catastrophe that has unleashed a poisonous orange
cloud upon the world. Leaving the house is impossible; in fact, Delaney
spends much of his time obsessively checking the seal on all the plastic
sheeting he’s duct-taped to the windows. The electricity is out, the
cellphones don’t work, the family is running out of food and Scotch,
Maddie wants a divorce, the sound of distant explosions and sinister
helicopters flying overhead keep rocking the neighbourhood and Bobby’s
brief exposure to the toxic cloud has left him to wander the house rambling
semi-autistically about Maxim magazine, Tide detergent and the colour orange.
Yep, everything’s going to be okay. Just hang in there, kiddo….

Stickland sets up a tense dramatic situation, but instead of staging lots
of arguments or emotional breakdowns, he takes a more oblique approach. The
characters talk more to themselves than to each other—more often than
not, people will quietly make their exit while someone else is still talking.
No one in this play is a particularly good communicator: Bobby’s brain
damage makes him unable to get his thoughts across to anybody else; Billie
keeps trying to contact her boyfriend Simon on her broken cellphone; Delaney
has decided to become a poet, but so far hasn’t been able to put a
single word down on paper; and the periodic public safety announcements that
crackle over the radio would probably be useless even if they weren’t
indecipherable.

When I wrote about All Clear last week, I said it contained echoes of
Samuel Beckett, but after actually seeing it, its true cultural touchstone
seems to be Don DeLillo—Stickland shares the pervasive atmosphere of
dread, the sense of unknowable geopolitical events impinging upon the lives
of average North Americans, the families who talk without ever communicating
that all appear in lots of DeLillo novels, and of course the orange cloud in
All Clear seems like a cousin to the “airborne toxic event” that
figured so prominently in White Noise. But Stickland also has a more offbeat,
down-to-earth sense of humour than DeLillo, and some of the more memorable
images in All Clear—Maddie savouring the last few Cheetos in the house,
Delaney trying to snatch a few moments of peace for himself by stretching out
on the couch and pulling a blanket over his head—have a grubby
immediacy that’s the opposite of DeLillo’s often cryptic
symbolism.

All Clear wanders most recklessly into DeLillo territory in Bobby’s
more involved soliloquies—these long, cosmic speeches in which Bobby
tries, with great difficulty, to explain his new cloud-induced insights into
brain chemistry, consciousness and the illusory nature of time. It feels as
though both Bobby and Stickland are trying to say something important in
these passages, but Gervais isn’t quite able to communicate
it—these passages feel too obviously like words that have been placed
in an actor’s mouth. Vanessa Holmes, meanwhile, gets to play a
character whose concerns are anything but cosmic—Billie’s such a
child of the electronic age that she can’t believe it when Braun
suggests she read a book to pass the time. (“I’d kill to watch
CNN right now,” she grumbles.) Holmes could probably dial back the
hysteria a notch or two, but she makes Billie’s self-involvement quite
amusing.

The love triangle between Wright, Dooley and Copithorne (who keeps making
heartfelt but inevitably idle threats to leave her marriage and “walk
out that front door”) is the best part of the play. I like the way the
three of them are able to coexist in this pressure-cooker environment and
maintain a certain surface politeness even though they can’t stand each
other. Maddie may even be a little grateful to have the orange cloud outside
their house; it prevents her from actually having to act on her threats and
actually leave.

Special mention should also be made of Dave Clarke’s innovative
sound design, which uses amazingly atmospheric sound effects (sirens,
explosions and a helicopter that sounds like it’s right there in the
theatre with you) and minimal music elements (mainly just a low pulse that
fades in and out almost before you even notice it’s there) that
unobtrusively underscore the tense mood of this household. It gets under your
skin, like toxic fog. And so does this play; Stickland intentionally
doesn’t resolve all the issues he raises, but I personally find
something comforting in the idea that a play can show you the end of the
world and still leave all sorts of questions dangling. V

All Clear Directed by Bradley Moss • Written by
Eugene Stickland • Starring John Wright, Marianne Copithorne and Jesse
Gervais • Roxy Theatre (10708-124 St) • 453-2440

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