You’ll catch your death out there

A housebound family awaits the end of the world in DeLillo-esque All Clear

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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