Theatre review: Tough! – simple story runs deeper

When George F Walker’s Tough! was written almost twenty years ago for Vancouver’s Green Thumb Theatre it was presented to young adults of the time as something of a cautionary tale.  Presented today as entertainment, this show about teen pregnancy gets a solid treatment in the Twenty Something Theatre production currently on stage at Studio 1398 on Granville Island.

Playwright Walker presents what appears to be on its surface a simple story about teenage pregnancy.  Nineteen year olds Tina and Bobby have been dating and having sex for some time now.  After Bobby is discovered cheating on her, Tina and her best friend Jill decide to confront Bobby about his philandering ways and with the news that Tina is pregnant.  But while Walker’s dramedy appears to be rather banal on its surface, it is what lies just below that holds the most interest and is its real strength.

As the confused and somewhat naive Bobby, Timothy Johnston comes out of the gates with huge conviction.  My front row seat gave me a clear sense of his vulnerability: trembling lip clearly holding back his fear coupled with a wide-eyed stare like the proverbial deer.  Easily capturing Bobby’s internal struggle between rejecting Tina and a misguided sense of honour, Johnston also provides small reflections from Walker’s deeper pools.  As he literally beats himself about his head trying to fully comprehend the predicament or curls up under the physical and emotional beating he takes, we know there is much more here than meets the eye.

Timothy Johnston in a scene from Vancouver's Twenty Something Theatre presentation of Tough!
Timothy Johnston as Bobby in a scene from the Twenty Something Theatre production of Tough! Photo by David Cooper.

Walker repeats this multi-layered hue with best friend Jill as well.  Here Katherine Gauthier must make us believe she is putting the fear of god into Bobby for the sake of her best friend Tina’s future and the future of the unborn child.  However, just like Bobby, there is something more to her visceral reactions than perhaps the circumstances require.  Gauthier is mostly successful here as the one with perhaps the deepest and darkest secret of the three, but as that secret begins to break through the surface she moved towards hysterics that didn’t quite ring true against the rest of her performance.

Marlene Ginader’s Tina is a study in understatement when compared to the two other characters that surround her.  At times we almost forget she is the catalyst for all the other drama going on around her and by the end of the show I was more interested in Jill and Bobby and their futures (and pasts) than I was about Tina.

Director Tamara McCarthy does a nice job moving her actors around the set although I suspect some of the audience seated stage left may have felt somewhat cheated, even within the small confines of Studio 1398.  Lighting designer Graham Ockley’s lighting design and Kevin McLardy’s sound design match perfectly to Craig Alfredson’s realistic playground set.

Tough! is as much about sucking it up and doing the right thing as it is about being strong in the face of life-changing circumstances.  This production’s strength lies in the latter, but perhaps not for the reasons we might suspect.

3 1/2 of 5 Stars Tough!

By George F Walker.  Directed by Tamara McCarthy.  A Twenty Something Theatre production.  On stage at Studio 1398 on Granville Island through September 3, 2011.  Visit for tickets and information.

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