By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The unexpected thing about Poison isn’t its intensity. After all, its starting point is unimaginable loss. No, the unexpected thing about Poison, as you’ll see in this stunningly acted Wild Side production directed by Jim Guedo, is how intensely gripping it is to watch how two people deal with the poison of the past as it’s infiltrated the present.
If Poison had been primarily about demanding access to your hankie supply, it would have joined a long line of missing-child dramas on stage and screen. But this award-winner from the Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans is about grief and what to do with it, not the breath-sucking moment of impending loss. And the characters enter that world, where the chemistry has been changed forever by bereavement, 10 years in.
Two people, arriving separately, are in a setting (designer: Guedo) of cold geometric white cubes, so unadorned, and clean it could be the antechamber of a hospital room for anonymous plastic surgery, or an avant-garde art gallery before an exhibition gets mounted. The two people were a couple; they aren’t now.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” the man (Nathan Cuckow) named only He says at the outset. And that conventional greeting will have a meaningful reverb — and tragedy — to it as we discover in the course of this short, austere, and compelling play. The encounter is, and remains, awkward. “It’s quiet here,” He says nervously. “It usually is in cemeteries,” She (Amber Borotsik) says, with an unmistakeable edge.
Ten years ago, their son Jakob was killed in an accident. And since then, apparently, they haven’t seen each other. They’re come together at the cemetery to attend to a plan to move 200 of the graves; poison has been seeping into the ground.
There’s a lot of tense and watchful silence in Poison, short though it is. Making a coffee from a machine, or getting a glass of water from the cooler seem momentous. We learn things gradually, in little stingers.
Is grief a sealed-room mystery? There isn’t just one way to deal with a great trauma: there’s moving on carrying grief with you, and there’s staying put, rooted to the ground soil of grief. He, a journalist, was the one who left, on the millennial New Year’s Eve, at 7:10 p.m.; and he has a new life and love in France. She has remained on location, alone, tending the grave, steeped in sorrow.
For her, time has stopped. Things, She says, “were never the same again.” And there’s a nuance of accusation in her tone as she says to him, “you think you’re in control of your own suffering.”
He grapples with that tone. It’s “‘I miss him’ versus ‘I think about him every day’.” The nuances are delicate, and they’re explored as a painful excavation of wounded souls by these two fine actors. He thinks she’s given herself over to grief; she thinks his attempts to move on with his life, to try and start again, are a form of escape.
And then there’s the existential question “if it’s always going to be like this, what’s the point of going on?” Across Borotsik’s face flickers every emotional nuance of a terrible self-knowledge. Indeed, He nailed it inadvertently the outset: She hasn’t changed a bit. She’s trapped in a torturing stasis in her life. But she stomps quickly on and offstage in her boots, planting her feet, never removing her coat.
Cuckow’s character, physically slower in his movements, ventures through thought more tentatively; every possible nuance of anxiety is at his disposal. He proposes a possible line of consolation that involves giving up on expectation. And what seeps into the fabric of the play is a sense of the intimate relationship that once was.
And, surprisingly, the play surprises us — with its liveliness, its sense of possibilities both accepted and rejected.
Anyhow, before I torture you any further with sentences like that one, I just want to assure you that, sorrowful as Poison is, it will grab hold of all of you, not just head for the eye-watering part of the emotional spectrum. Besides, the production is a chance to see two of our finest actors at work with two questing characters in the most demanding sort of chamber piece. Don’t miss.
Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series
Written by: Lot Vekemans (translated by Rina Vergano)
Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo
Starring: Amber Borotsik, Nathan Cuckow
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy (8529 Gateway Blvd))
Running: through March 25
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca