Oxfam’s Sunday morning infomercials and the Christian Children’s Fund doe-eyed mailers are solely designed to illicit an emotional response so that we not only open your hearts, but our wallets too. Rarely though do they inspire us beyond calling the 800 number on the screen or putting a cheque inside the convenient self-addressed stamped envelope. Helping to alleviate any Western guilt we may harbour, it allows us to ease our conscience while protecting the mind’s fragile box that separates our privilege and the inequities of the world.
In Mother Teresa is Dead, currently on stage at the Pacific Theatre, playwright Helend Edmundson explores a rare moment where that box cracks, as a mother finds herself compelled to abandon her young middle-class family for the impoverished of India.
Having suddenly disappeared from her home in London, Jane (Julie McIsaac in photo right by Ron Reed) is discovered seven weeks later by her husband Mark (Sebastian Kroon) living in India, taken in by fellow ex-pat Frances (Katharine Venour) after she finds Jane in mid-breakdown in the streets of the local village. Come to take her home, Mark not only finds himself in conflict with his wife’s fragile mental state, but must also must fight the emotional and philosophical hold that Srinivas (Kayvon Kelly), the operator of the local refuge for street orphans, has on her.
As the stereotypical traveller who finds little enjoyment from being in a foreign land, Kroon has the toughest job among the cast as he must convincingly sell his unlikeable character. At first glance the playwright forces him into the role of villain as he comes to selfishly bring his wife home, but gradually Kroon peels back his character’s layers to reveal an emotional neediness that ultimately makes him one of the most sympathetic. Similarly, as the young Indian, Kelly effectively walks a fine line between his idealism and what may be more sinister motives for trying to convince Jane to remain in India.
As Jane, McIsaac is relegated to confusion for the bulk of the play, mostly wondering the house as if in a daze, but does manage some believably conflicted moments very late in the play as she comes out of her stupor and must finally grapple with her decision to stay or go home. Katharine Venour is placed in an odd position as binder for the other characters and whose relationship with Srinivas, while emotionally evocative, seems out-of-place in this story.
Production designer Florence Barrett has designed an effective set in the tiny confines of the Pacific Theatre space, but on opening night her lighting seemed to vary greatly in its intensity to distraction; I variously wondered if it was meant to be evocative of passing clouds over the Indian landscape or perhaps some deeper meaning, but was ultimately distracting.
Despite some intense performances among this cast, that elusive emotional connection with the audience never quite materializes, with the playwright offering up an ideal of philanthropic action over one of meaning. I found myself inspired to dial, than to do.
By Helend Edmundson. Directed by Evan Frayne. A Pacific Theatre presentation of The Bleeding Heart Collective production. On stage at Pacific Theatre through March 23, 2013. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.