Literacy, unemployment, poverty, divorce, nutrition, self esteem: it’s hard to imagine a 50-minute play tackling one or two of those issues, much less all of them, yet that’s precisely what happens in David S. Craig’s 2001 work that is even more relevant as Canada (and the rest of the world) tries to spend its way out of the only major recession that its target audience has experienced.
Dropping in on the first performance of the current school tour following the St. Catharines launch just two days ago, it was fascinating to see the reaction of the grade 4-8 students who filled the Vineland Public School gymnasium. Without a doubt, all of those young minds were able to identify with at least one of the characters’ dilemmas. And so they did, revealing themselves by laughing too hard or going suddenly quiet when an emotional nail was hit squarely on the head (fear of failure: whether scoring a first goal to please a dinosaur dad or reading the actual words out of a book in class instead of making them up because “It’s not what’s written. It’s better.”).
It took just a few minutes for the crowd to collectively allow itself to slip into director Pablo Felices-Luna’s vision of Danny’s ever-changing world. Fortunately, he was blessed with a cast that are all talented individuals in their own right but magically feed off each other—an ensemble that left singular egos in the hall.
Aaron Stern creates a Danny that has just the right mixture of audacity (he’ll confront any adult), vulnerability (faced with the certainty that his absent dad has vanished and is not living/waiting for his only son in the Rockies, the distraught young man abandons everyone in his life to search for a suddenly destroyed dream), and fun (from double-saw brain surgery to “puckless” hockey, the ever-inventive youngster simultaneously delights his newly made friends and masks his decided lack of real footwear and the other necessities of life in Canada’s largest metropolis).
Danny’s perpetually down-on-her-luck mother has been astutely cast in the ever-versatile personage of Stephanie Jones. Jones deftly employs quiet understatement rather than the more temping woe-is-me tone as she works through the role where her growing list of discovered lies culminates in a perfectly spat out given-name (“Louise!”) outburst from her dispirited, temporarily unforgiving son. It’s a telling moment: the room went cold.
Mark Crawford’s Angelo, once he found his groove, settles down into an engaging portrayal of a best friend whose self-defeating attitude is marvellously removed from his psyche and, hilariously, stomped out of existence. Even the nearby older girls in the audience (“It’s so like a soap opera,” one muttered before being stared down by an attentive teacher) held their fire at this important juncture.
Rounding out the cast as Penelope (spoiled girl whose separated parents threaten to derail her steady Walter-Mitty progression to fortune and fame), Mayko Nguyen delightfully shows she’s really just an insecure kid who’d love to have friends call on her twin cell phones instead of warring elders who bat about their daughter in an unending ping pong match (that visual notion comes to spectacular life as Danny is brought back to the living thanks to a defilibrater intervention most fine).
As good as the cast is, without Andjelija Djuric’s extraordinarily inventive set (the depiction of Penelope’s “chic” mom is as brilliant as it becomes functional) and Rick Sack’s music and sound design, the play would not hold the attention of its young patrons (and their minders) nearly as well.
Craig’s script most certainly stands the test of time, with only the “Mississauga/Rocky Mountain” joke falling as flat as the Prairies. Do we teach Canadian geography anymore?
Here’s a show that’s just right for the times and a cast/crew more than capable of sparking the conversations that must follow every presentation. JWR