Lucy Peacock as Elora and Nigel Bennett as Julian in The Thrill. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.
*** (out of 5)
Reviewed by James Karas
The Thrill, Judith Thompson’s new play, premiered at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre. The Festival commissioned the play some years ago and the result is a creditable piece that got superb performances.
Thompson takes the issue of euthanasia head on. Does anyone have the right to end the life of a severely disabled person? For some people the answer may be “it depends” and for others a categorical “never.”
Elora (Lucy Peacock) is a brilliant and highly successful lawyer who was born disabled. She is confined to a wheelchair and she fights for the rights of the disabled like a tigress.
Julian (Nigel Bennett) is a professor of bioethics who has written a book that suggests a utilitarian philosophy of life. There may be situations when death is preferable to life, he suggests. Julian has written a bestselling book on the subject and he has been exposed to some approval and a great deal of derision and hatred.
Elora considers Julian as worse than Satan and in fact assaults him during one of his lectures. But their violent disagreement seems to be skin-deep. They both agree that disabled people need care as opposed to institutionalization and unite to fight for greater funding. Elora does a much better job in pursuing the project but Julian appears to be in fundamental agreement with their aims.
The two become sexually attracted and fall in love as they pursue the political aim of providing better care for the disabled. The thrill of the title refers to Elora’s delight in arguing and having an orgasm after a lifetime of certainty that it will ever happen.
There is a subplot involving Julian’s mother Hannah (Patricia Collins) who is descending into dementia and he decides to send her into an institution, “a gulag” in Elora’s description. Thomson finds humour in this relationship as she does throughout the play.
The most touching relationship is perhaps that between Elora and Francis (Robert Persichini), her caregiver. He is a gay, out-of-work actor who is humane, caring and self-assertive. He and Elora have a relationship of true love where he is not afraid to criticize her and never falters in his affection. A marvelous portrayal by Persichini.
The crux of the play is the convergence of the ways of thinking of Elora and Julian. When Elora’s health starts deteriorating and the tough lawyer realizes her dreadful future (feeding tubes, loss of speech and loss of faculties), she has second thoughts about euthanasia. Is there a point after which life is not worth living? She asks Julian to end her life.
The play presents its points of view with very broad brushes instead of nuanced arguments. Even though there are moments of emotion, the thrust of the play is cerebral. I was waiting for the climactic moment of emotional intensity and it never came.
In his “lecture” about a utilitarian philosophy of life, Julian refers to the Latimer case. Robert Latimer is a Saskatchewan farmer whose daughter was suffering from severe form of cerebral palsy. She was quadriplegic, had the mental capacity of a four-month old baby and had numerous seizures every day. She suffered a great deal of pain and was completely dependent on others for her care. She had undergone numerous surgical procedures and more were on the way. Her father decided to put an end to his daughter’s pain. He connected the exhaust pipe of his truck to the cab and his daughter died from the carbon monoxide.
I give only a few facts from the Latimer case but they illustrate the encounter with the incomprehensible horror of the situation. Even in the dry analysis of the Supreme Court, what Latimer faced, what he did and the 10-year jail sentence that he served leave you emotionally drained.
This is what The Thrill lacked - the ability to leave us emotionally drained. Even the love relationship between Elora and Julian seemed more contrived than real and the final resolution struck me as a copout.
Director Dean Gabourie has an excellent cast and nothing but praise goes to Peacock, Bennett, Persichini and Collins. Nor can one complain about the directing. The problem I think is with the play where Thompson fails to find the moment to floor the audience emotionally.
The Thrill by Judith Thompson opened on August 13 and will run until September 22, 2013 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600