Theatre Review: The Crackwalker

This entry is cross-posted with blogTO.

When it first premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille 28 years ago, Judith Thompson's The Crackwalker was a kind of lighning rod for Canadian drama. Not only did it mark the arrival of a major new theatrical voice, but it signalled a new maturity among Canadian playwrights. Grit and brutal honesty had arrived.

Staged and Confused's production of The Crackwalker, also at Theatre Passe Muraille, is a worthy tribute to the significance of that first production. But it fails to generate any relevance of its own or achieve the resonance of its forebearer. Legacy, as it turns out, can be a tricky burden to bear.

The Crackwalker is about people who live at the margins. They are violent, drunk, and thrive on toxic relatioships. Some struggle with mental disabilities. The play is a disturbing and graphic exploration of urban desperation, and pulls no punches in its depictions of the people who live in this world. While some of the characters are able to escape this no man's land, Thompson is very clear on the circumstances that doom others to endlessly repeat the cycle of abuse, exploitation and suffering.

No doubt, this is Thompson's darkest play. But it isn't her best play. Her subsequent explorations of similar themes-- I Am Yours and Lion in the Streets- contain a sophistication in structure and character missing from The Crackwalker. The play is a rough draft for later work, and its various structural flaws are a challenge for anyone attempting to stage the piece.

Fortunately, Staged and Confused brings a lot of creative firepower to the table. Adrian Ellis' moody sound design is a near-perfect aural background for the gloomy action. Likewise, Lindsay Walker's set is a nice piece of minimalist design- everything the characters need, nothing the audience doesn't. And director Michael Murphy has given the whole production a tight, focused feel.

The young cast also does a nice job. As Alan, Rick Jon Egan makes admirable work of his character's frenetic emotional landscape. Hannah Miller and Marie Jones are solid as the female leads, tackling some of Thompson's more flinchingly uncomfortable moments. Craig PIke looks a little too young and a touch too clean as Joe, but still manages to put the material across.

So, with a good production and competent cast, why does this version of The Crackwalker fall short? As I said, this is a good script, not a great script. And the weaknesses in the material become all the more apparent in the hands of relatively inexperienced cast and creative team. It's also a little hard to shake the feeling that the world has moved on since the play's first production almost three decades ago. Everything that was so frank and shocking in 1980 now seems...well, a little 1980.

But these problems could have been overcome had the cast really dug into the complex emotional terrain of Thompson's characters. Unfortunately, the cast and director seem to have decided early on that this play is "dark and important", and built the performance around this central idea. This leads them to gloss over a lot of important detail. Too often, it feels like a character is angry simply because the script calls for them to be angry. Imprecise performances and broad-stroke direction pulverizes the emotional stakes and prevents this production from doing something genuinely new and insightful. It lives in the shadow of The Crackwalker's legacy, and offers very little new insight or relevance to a contemporary audience.

The Crackwalker continues at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until October 11th. For tickets and info, call 416 504 7529 or visit Artsboxoffice.ca.

Photo: Marie Jones as Theresa and Hannah Miller as Sandy. By Radey Barrack.