‘I would never do that.’ A different kind of horror in Squeamish at Northern Light Theatre

Davina Stewart in Squeamish, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A couple of weeks ago director Trevor Schmidt and an actor friend were driving back from a day’s excursion to Calgary where she had an audition. “It was getting dark, and we put on a recording of Squeamish,” he says. “And Kristin nearly drove us off the road.”

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“It’s ‘Oh no no NO. O no, you’re not gonna …’ (breath intake, wince … ) Schmidt says of the line-crossing escalations of the one-woman horror story by the New York playwright Aaron Mark, launching the Northern Light Theatre season Friday.

Davina  Stewart, who stars in Schmidt’s production of Squeamish, says that when she first picked up the script she couldn’t read it straight through. “There was a moment I had to put it down for a while. It was … too much.” Stage manager Liz Allison-Jorde nods. So does Schmidt. “It gets ya!”

When rehearsals started, it was on Zoom because Schmidt was out of town, on the stage himself in a Calgary production of The House of Bernard Alba at Sage Theatre. The cast and crew watched each other flinch in horror reading the script.    

Squeamish comes equipped with a content warning to the squeamish: there will be blood. But it’s not a matter of buckets of it, or a stage awash in gore. “It’s all words,” says Stewart. It’s storytelling. “Yup, it’s just a story,” says Schmidt cheerfully. “And it gets creepier and darker and scarier.”

Stewart plays Sharon, a New York Upper West Side therapist who has shown up in the middle of the night at the home of her own therapist. She’s just back from Texas and the funeral of her nephew, who committed suicide. And, “shrink to shrink,” she’s telling the ever-more terrifying story of what’s happened on this trip. Sharon never  leaves her chair — possibly (as Stewart points out) the modern New York equivalent of the campfire around which scary stories traditionally get told.

Horror for the stage takes a deft hand — especially if it’s a one-hander. Schmidt has written one-woman horror plays before now. We Had A Girl Before You — a Gothic thriller in which we’re never sure if the woman before us, telling us the story, has cast herself as the heroine of a romantic novella — was a Halloween season hit in 2020. 

As you quickly find out in Squeamish, Sharon’s is a family with a long history of mental illness, addiction, and suicide. An extreme hemophobe and recovered alcoholic, Sharon has been on psychotropic drugs since she was 14. And, in an urge “to find out who she really is,” beyond the agents of numbing as Stewart puts it, she makes the decision to go on the fateful trip without them. “Maybe I’m some alien creature,” says Sharon, “and I’m just not fundamentally equipped to participate in this indulgent, needy, whiny, vain, overmedicated digital age, where nobody can sit still for five minutes, nobody knows to have a basic human interaction anymore….”

“We talk about things being second nature,” says Stewart. “So what is our first nature? How do we discover what has been suppressed? Finding out what’s ‘normal’ is a big part of it: what does it even mean to be normal post-trauma in a toxic world?   

“To me, it’s a play about addiction, and the horror of what we put ourselves through. Even though we know we are harming ourselves and others. Even though we know it will end badly.” Coffee, binge-watching, smoking, video games  … we all have our addictions, she argues. Without acknowledging, or facing, the need to escape or numb our pain, we just keep trading one for another.

The confidence that we are in control is a kind of arrogance. As Schmidt says, “you go ‘I would never do that. I would never cross that line; I would never go that far’…. And then you find yourself going that far.”

“What is your true nature? Who are you really?” Squeamish is horror that’s scares you in a much different way than sci-fi horror or supernatural horror, or being chased by a killer down a cul-de-sac. Schmidt calls it ‘body horror,” a sub-genre occupied by the Saw movies, Black Swan, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, all with disturbing violations of the body  

“I can be startled by Alien. But this is the kind of horror story that really scares me,” says Allison-Jorde. “This is real horror.” In her work, she always worries about accidentally dropping spoilers at home with the family. With Squeamish? “Absolutely not going to happen.”

 “The choices we make lead us to the horror,” says Stewart. “And these are real, possible choices,” says Schmidt.

PREVIEW

Squeamish

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written by: Aaron Mark

Directed and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Davina Stewart

Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 102330 84 Ave.

Running: Oct. 21 to Nov. 5

Tickets: northernlighttheatre.com

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