Theatre review: Problem Child and The End of Civilization – an exhilarating evening among a fog of desperation

How far would you be willing to go out of desperation?  In George F Walker’s Problem Child and The End of Civilization his characters will go to sometimes surprising extremes.

Part of Walker’s play cycle Suburban Motel all six of his one-acts, including the two presented here, take place in the same slightly run-down motel on the outskirts of a large city.

In Problem Child, Denise and RJ are trying to put their life back together in an attempt to regain custody of their young daughter who has been placed in foster care.  Trapped in Walker’s motel room, they wait anxiously for a phone call with the verdict from their social worker who has been assessing their abilities to be parents, against a history of drugs, jail and prostitution.

In the strongest performance of the night, Melanie Reich proves she is someone to watch after graduation.  Full of nervous energy and the residual effects of her drug habit, Reich tweeks out in her portrayal of Denise.  Morally ambiguous, she is successful in making Denise simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive.

As the boyfriend trying to put his life in order, Scott Button’s RJ views life through what he sees on daytime trash television but as he rails against the audacity of the talk shows he is oblivious to the fact he and Denise are themselves just one-step from Jerry Springer’s studio.   Where it would have been easy to dumb him down instead Button gives us an RJ that is a singular beacon of hope amongst many broken lights.

Jordan Kerbs and Matt Reznek round out this cast as Helen the social worker and Phillie the front desk clerk come housekeeper.  Kerbs is deliciously concussed in her later appearance but felt stiff and full of furrowed brow early on.  Reznek gives Phillie a clever quirkiness that helps break up the tension.

Melanie Reich and Scott Button in the Theatre at UBC production of Problem Child. Photo by Tim Matheson
Melanie Reich and Scott Button in the Theatre at UBC production of Problem Child. Photo by Tim Matheson.

In The End of Civilization Walker trades in the desperation of a family looking to be reunited to the desperation of a family torn apart.  He also moves up the socio-economic ladder as he focuses on the middle class.

Henry and Lily have left behind their comfortable life and kids and checked into Walker’s motel as Henry searches for work.  A victim of recent corporate downsizing, Henry is on the angrier downside of his post-layoff depression.  Lily, afraid of losing the family home and giving up her comfortable life, slips a little too easily into society’s underbelly.  As the two descend into their surroundings, Walker interlaces a murder mystery and a non-linear timeline that adds additional surprising layers.

Mitchell Hookey brings a solid performance to the tragic Henry, pushing him just far enough to the brink to add to the mystery and Christine Bortolin embraces her Lily as easily as Lily embraces her newly found vocation.  As the two cops Max and Donny, Joel Garner and Alex Pangburn bring a strange dynamic to their relationship that I struggled to connect with and as the prostitute, Tracy Schut raises her beyond what could easily have been another caricature.

Alcohol plays a huge part in both of Walker’s work here, forcing more than a third of his characters across both plays to perform drunk.  This is not an easy task for any actor and it trips up two of the four here who languish in states of inebriation.  Sometimes, as in the portrayals by Reznek and Hookey, less is more.

Walker’s distrust of “the system” is evident through both plays but under director Chris Robson’s careful direction we are never forced to take sides.  In Problem Child we feel sorry for RJ and Denise and hope they can pull their lives together to put together their family but at the same time can’t help but be convinced that foster care is probably the best place for the child.  In The End of Civilization, Robson walks his actors along that same fence providing equal weight in the justification of their actions and the responsibility they must take as a result.  Like life, there is no black and white here only shades of grey and much fog.

Set designer Wladimiro Rodriguez gives a realistic depiction of room number five in Walker’s motel that remains unchanged between the two plays and adds an exploded roof that seeks to mirror the exploration of hypocrisies of life in Walker’s text.  Lighting on opening night seemed to be a bit problematic and thanks to the notices announcing shots are fired in both plays the misfire in The End of Civilization’s penultimate scene was perhaps not quite as disastrous as it could have been.  Ling Zhong’s sound design and Diana Sepulveda’s costumes were evocative of the period.

I was exhausted by the time I emerged from the fog of desperation in the Studio Theatre at the Chan Centre last night; sleep didn’t come easily though.

3 1/2 of 5 Stars Problem Child and The End of Civilization

By George F Walker.  Directed by Chris Robson.  A Theatre at UBC production.  On stage at the Chan Centre Studio Theatre through February 18, 2012.  Visit http://www.theatre.ubc.ca for tickets and information.

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