By James Karas
Joan MacLeod’s Toronto, Mississippi gets a sensitive and moving production by Panfish Productions at The Box Theatre. The play deals with the difficult subject of autism, delayed development in the euphemism of the play and its effects on a “normal” family. Fine performances and effective directing bring out the best in the play under conditions that would daunt most performers.
The central character of the play is Jhana (Kayla Whelan), an 18-year old girl who can function to some degree despite her autism. She is working and has developed a crush on her boss. She lives in the dream world of Elvis Presley because her estranged father, King (Peter Nelson) is in fact an Elvis impersonator.
After we see the ordinary part of Jhana’s life, the play does build up to a climax of explosive emotions and even physical violence. Whelan and the rest of the cast give riveting performances.
Her mother Maddie (Andrea Irwin) is a strong and sensible woman trying to deal with her daughter, her husband and a lodger named Bill (Yehuda Fisher).
With a young, autistic girl becoming sexually aware, I expected to meet a monster any moment. MacLeod is much better than that. There is no monster in the play. Bill, a physically unattractive poet and teaching assistant, is a thoroughly decent man who tries to help Jhana and stays home with her while her mother is out on dates. He may drink too much and feel his failure as a writer and Maddie’s lack of attraction to him, but his essentially decency is unaffected. A splendid performance by Fisher.
Irwin’s Maddie is an attractive, caring and tough mother with a ne’er do well husband and, of course, a child with a problem. She is still sexually attracted to King and succumbs to his advances only to find out, perhaps for the umpteenth time, that King is a shallow, selfish, pathetic man going from one sleazy bar to the next trying to make a living by impersonating Elvis Presley.
It is worth giving some idea of the venue where director Kitti Lake had to produce the play. You approach The Box Theatre through a laneway at 89 Niagara Street, Toronto. You go up a fire escape and down a hall which is some distance below Hilton standards.
The performing area is a square room of perhaps 600 square feet (I am guessing) in pristine, late, unrenovated chic. The set by Jackie McClelland consists of a couch, a TV set and a table and four chairs. There are about forty folding chairs lined up against the walls and that is all the people the theatre can accommodate. The action is as close as several feet away from you. Call it intimate theatre in the rough. Kudos to Lake for structuring a fine production around such severe limitations.
As the title suggests, the play takes place in Toronto and familiarity with the environs is an added bonus. But the real prize, after all that, is a fine production of a fine Canadian play.
Toronto, Mississippi by Joan MacLeod opened on October 20 and will play until November 6, 2016 at The Box Theatre, 89 Niagara St. Toronto, Ontario. www.panfishproductions.ca