By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The woman we meet up close in 19 Weeks, folding laundry in a toy-strewn room, says “if I’m honest…” and “being honest …” and “in all honesty …” a lot. And then she looks right at us, hesitates, takes a breath, and forges ahead with her story. Honesty is her mantra. And honesty costs.
If Emily (Vanessa Sabourin) seems to be bracing herself a little against resistance, you can understand why. For one thing she’s telling us — and in Sabourin’s compelling performance re-living — a traumatic experience that’s barely more than a year old; it still feels raw. And Sabourin, a gutsy actor, steps bravely up to raw.
For another thing, in sharing her story full-disclosure, Emily, the stand-in for the Brit-turned-Australian playwright Emily Steel, is up against a formidable wall of silence on the subject.
At age 38, 19 weeks pregnant, Emily has a late-term abortion. Many have had the experience; few talk about it. As she discovers in the course of this gut-wrencher of a solo show — the season-ender for Northern Light in collaboration with Azimuth Theatre — her baby has Down Syndrome. All along, as she reveals near the outset, the pregnancy hasn’t been the source of untrammelled delight. It’s more on the spectrum of “O God, what have we done?” and “not quite the same amazing miracle it was the first time.”
Emily introduces us to her partner Chris, a generous-minded and caring guy, and their two-year-old kid Frank. She tells us about her family, all “on the other side of the world,” and the heartbreak of an beloved uncle with a degenerative genetic disease (and the mother who sacrificed everything her life to take care of him). She’s continually, violently sick, to the point of being unable to work and barely able to take care of Frank.
19 Weeks, a title that speaks both to duration and to countdown, is propelled by stress. It’s full of tense phone calls for test results, and waiting for tense calls to be returned, then further tests, and more tense waiting for results. We do the waiting with her. And the tone, while emotionally fraught, has an unexpectedly earthy, matter-of-fact quality, resistant to self-pity and sentimentalism. Even under duress — and she goes through the wringer — Sabourin’s Emily retains a certain sturdy core sense of self, of resolve, as she re-creates her own experience.
The pressures of the world are tilted against Emily’s decision, and she acknowledges the gaze, the potential for disapproval and controversy. “Maybe if I was a real mother I would sacrifice everything. But I’m not that person. With perfect clarity, I know who I’m not.” But, as Sabourin conveys so eloquently, she’s baring her own story, and stepping up to the consequences; she’s not in the end trying to convince people to change their minds.
Which is something theatre does: expand your vision/compassion meter, let you meet a character, and see the world through their eyes.
Director/designer Trevor Schmidt deliberately doesn’t make it easy for Emily. The back wall of his beautiful design for the TransAlta Arts Barns’ Studio Theatre is dominated by opaque screens, slightly angled so light shines through the cracks (lighting design: Beth Dart). And the stage is dominated by a haunting painting (by Maria Pace Wynters). A grave, composed little girl in a red dress gazes directly out at us; a white bird of prey hovers over one shoulder. Under the circumstances you can’t help feel that she’s the “maybe,” the “what if?” of a nerve-wracking story.
The little girl is still there, gazing out, when Emily muses, in the end, that “wondering isn’t the same thing as regret.”
In stripe-y socks that speak to vulnerability, Sabourin pads around a lit, lived-in, colourfully child-friendly room, surrounded by blackness. In Schmidt’s production, a story much concerned with call-backs and medical technology dispenses with actual telephones or computers or ultra-sound monitors.
Liz Han’s clever original score punctuates its lyrical impulses with ominous buzzing at crucial moments as the tension escalates. It’s just occurred to me, a couple of days after the opening, that the pre-show music includes Cole Porter’s “I’ve got you under my skin…” which has a witty morbid reverb in context.
The nightmare immediacy of the experience, with its punctuation marks of anger (“my life has value too!”) and desperation cedes to a kind of resolution in the arc of Sabourin’s performance. She leaves us with Emily reflecting on it, sadly but not with self-recrimination. And you realize, I think, that embedded all along in the calibrated anxiety and turmoil attached to the experience, is the core of Emily’s certainty.
“And I know how certain that past-me was about how she felt and what she wanted,” she says. “And I have to trust her and believe her … because she made this-me possible.”
Everybody who watches 19 Weeks will react differently, but react you will. Discussion is open. Read 12thnight.ca’s INTERVIEW with playwright Emily Steel here.
Theatre: Northern Light, Azimuth
Written by: Emily Steel
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Vanessa Sabourin
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through April 13
Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com, or at the door