Russ Hunt's Reviews

The End of Civilization
by George F. Walker

Theatre UNB / NYR COSTLEE Productions
Memorial Hall, February 2005

George Walker's Suburban Motel series of plays is probably among the works of Canadian drama most frequently produced on campuses. The plays are deceptively simple: all six of them take place in a motel room, which means that sets are straightforward and inexpensive; all involve more or less realistic "domestic" issues, have relatively small casts and are fairly short one-acters, and (perhaps most important) all represent a pretty clear and passionate position on social issues, one that many young people can make sense of and embody with some enthusiasm.

Walker has called himself a spokesman for the sort of person you'd expect to find in (or coming out of) the East End of Toronto. In the case of The End of Civilization, the third of the series of loosely related scripts to be produced at UNB in the last year, the character at the center is Henry, a downsized and desperate victim of the corporate rollbacks we've been witnessing in the last decade or so, a hopelessly unemployed lower-middle-class guy with a mortgage, a wife and kids, and virtually no hope of ever climbing back up on the corporate rat-race track. The substance of the play's action (presented, interestingly, in a series of non-chronological vignettes) involves his incoherent and uncontrolled -- and ultimately insane -- attempt to cope with his situation.  Along with his wife, he books into the motel so that, we infer, he can focus on the job hunt; leaving their house and their kids, he and Lily (who is there, she says, because he wants her to be there) arrive at the motel in the last scene of the play (though it's the earliest scene in the story), and discuss the apparent hopelessness of the situation.  Henry says, "I think we need something drastic to happen. Something that shakes up the whole society and makes it a little less smug.  Because maybe it hasn't occurred to people that once the rules of responsibility are suspended, they're suspended . . . maybe forever." By this time in the play however, we know that what is going to happen is that Henry is going to start killing people, essentially putting pathetic job-hunters out of their misery; we also know that Lily is going to, shall we say, go into the sex trade as a way of making sure that, whatever happens, she doesn't lose the house.

Of course, however, all this has already happened for the audience; in the play, we see Donny and Max, the homicide detectives who also appear in Adult Entertainment, pursuing Henry as a suspect in a series of killings, and we watch as the woman from the next unit, a sex-trade worker named Sandy, opens the door to a new employment opportunity for Lily.

All this is achieved by lighting changes between isolated scenes (and by some lightning costume changes and adjustments as well), and is, all things considered, neatly structured.  There are, as usual, some wonderfully articulate moments in Walker's script -- Henry's impassioned characterization of the corporate climate of downsizing and profiteering, for instance: "It's because a bunch of greedy pricks can't put any fucking limits on themselves.  It's because every asshole who runs one of these fucking enormous companies can smell these fucking enormous profits, and he knows the only thing between him and these profits is a little human misery. A few layoffs. A little downsizing.  Just a little cutback here and there. A prudent reduction in the labour force."

The play's five roles are all neatly defined, as well, and director Nicholas Cole has found some pretty competent actors to fill them. Particularly striking is the experienced and skilful Marissa Robinson as Lily, the not-quite-forebearing-enough wife, and Scott Shannon as a hyperactive ,brink-of-insanity Henry.  But Chelsea Seale is a striking and convincingly airheaded Sandy, and Greg Shanks and David Yarwood are completely competent as the two detectives, Donny and Max (Shanks does an unnervingly close impression of Don Johnson in Miami Vice, and Yarwood is only a little too exaggerated as a strutting, swaggering parody of a macho cop).

The problem with the production, and there is one, is, not surprisingly, Walker's script.  The dialogue, while it shows an ear for how people actually talk, is, as often this case in his plays, strangely empty: I was surprised, for instance, to see that Marissa Robinson's Lily often had nothing much to do while Henry ranted on except to broadcast sardonic scepticism or uncomprehending frustration. Robinson, whose work I've admired in a wide range of campus productions over the past five or six years, is usually not left with a limited range of repeated facial expressions and not much else while another character speaks.  Similarly, I was surprised to see that the arguments between Donny and Max seemed slow, repetitious, and often beside the point of the play.  The cast, and director Cole, did their best to keep things moving, and yet somehow I was often aware that Walker's script had stalled.

There were a few technical difficulties with the production, as well; while the semi-surreal set worked as nicely as one might hope, I was struck by the fact that one of the lighting arrangements left the front edge of the stage in semi-darkness, for no reason I could see, and we often had simply the silhouettes of characters to work with.  The lighting changes which regularly catapulted us from one situation to another a few days earlier, or the next morning, or a few days later were neatly timed and effective, but there were overlooked details (for example, the night I attended, when Lily and Henry check into the motel for the first time, in the last scene, the half-bottle of Irish whisky was still (or already?) on the dressing table.

Attentively directed and more than competently acted, The End of Civilization still seemed to me to exhibit some of the stitching and patching that signals a play not quite completed.  I suspect it's in Walker to make this into a better play, though it seems clear that he's on to bigger and better things.

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