Early on in Judith Thompson’s intriguingly titled The Thrill, Elora (Lucy Peacock in another spectacular performance) says that she’s “never walked—never wanted to.” At first hearing, that statement seems proud and defiant, living as she does with a progressive, degenerative muscular disease. But the auburn beauty has never taken a step on her own, which on the surface makes her assertion true, for “if you don’t know what you’re missing” seems to validate—to those moving through life on their own steam—that assertion.
Thompson is trying to turn a number of assumptions about the disabled and dying upside down from the get-go. However, the logic falls apart due to the key personality trait of both the playwright and her protagonist: imagination.
From director Dean Gabourie’s point of view, Elora’s daily existence in a motorized wheelchair (many, many others who can’t afford this “luxury” for their forced confinement) becomes the most “moving” character of the four players. Initially, this choice gives the opening scenes a lack of physical balance, save and except for the wonderful moment when social-activist, human-rights lawyer Elora crashes into a public forum hosted by her nemesis: best-selling author of Wheelbarrow, Julian (Nigel Bennett starts this complex role unevenly but finds his sea legs in Act II and soars to the finish).
Living with the effects of dementia, Julian’s mother, Hannah (a compellingly heroic, shameless portrayal by Patricia Collins) spends much of her day speaking with a well-loved deceased cat and long-dead daughter, Ruthie.
Similar to Elora, Ruthie’s life was cut short after contracting a degenerative muscular disease; unlike Elora, she walked the planet for a time prior to being relegated to a wheelbarrow—frequently ferried around the modest family farm in Ireland by older brother Julian whose recent best-seller advocates giving parents a choice—legally—to kill their babies when it seems a virtual certainty that those precious lives will be overwhelmingly miserable and painful (as did Robert Latimer—but without state approval, was convicted of second-degree murder for releasing his daughter, he believed, from her hell-on-earth existence).
To fuel the drama, Thompson has Elora and Julian experience the most inexplicable circumstance of human experience: love at first sight (and full-on conjugal at that, echoing the carnal urges and yearnings that were so beautifully brought to the screen in The Sessions, cross-reference below).
To add comic relief and simultaneously delve into the psyche of the all-important work of personal assistants, Thompson conjures up Francis to lovingly braid hair, patiently hear confessionals (and give some of his own: the intimacy, necessarily, works both ways, one of the great truths that the playwright confirms), endure rants and verbal abuse as well as share secrets like girlfriends. Robert Persichini is more than up to the task of bringing to life the catalytic part of a sometime comedian who finds his most appreciative audience is a party of one.
Thompson has done the world a great service by engaging us all with these difficult situations that, sooner or later, will affect everyone. Yet the thorniest of those remains: at what point is it kinder to purposely end a life rather than prolong it? Having already been in those shoes, I have a strong opinion, but know from experience that every situation is unique and that anyone choosing to “do the right/legal thing” will continue to spark understanding and rage (simultaneously in most cases) as we all struggle to live a meaningful life then exit gracefully. JWR