Stage Door Review 2023

Casey and Diana

Friday, June 2, 2023


by Nick Green, directed by Andrew Kushnir

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

June 1-17, 2023

Thomas: “When I go I want to have a train”

The Stratford Festival is currently presenting the world premiere of Casey and Diana by Nick Green. It is a sensitive, beautifully written play inspired by the famous photograph of Diana, princess of Wales, visiting Casey House, a hospice for AIDS patients in Toronto on October 25, 1991. There she broke with royal protocol and rejected public fear by shaking hands with a man dying of AIDS. This act had repercussions throughout the world by forcing people to look on AIDS sufferers as fellow human beings. The cast is flawless and the directing insightful. Theatre-lovers should make every attempt to see the play during its short run.

The play is set primarily in one room at Casey House, founded in 1988 by June Callwood, one of the first hospices in the world to provide palliative care and support for people, in the beginning all gay men, living with HIV/AIDS. The play begins with a recreation of the photograph by Tim Graham of Diana sitting by the bed of a patient and shaking his hand. Green gives this patient the name Thomas and characterizes him as the main wit of the facility. He tells Diana that he and his sister Pauline watched every minute of Diana’s wedding to Charles. What struck him especially was the moment Diana exited the coach and stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral with her 25-foot-long train behind her as she was about to walk through the door and enter upon an entirely new life. He tells her, “When I go I want to have a train”, the train a reminder, even after you have passed over the threshold, that you were there.

As it turns out, this opening scene is in Thomas’s imagination and is one of many mental practice sessions interspersed throughout the action as he prepares to meet a woman he boundlessly admires. The next scene occurs eight days earlier when Thomas acquires a new roommate, a young man named Andre, who, angry and humiliated to be brought to a hospice, is rude and uncooperative. This is also the day when the staff, the nurse Vera and the volunteer Marjorie, first learn of the royal visit.

The announcement of the visit gives new energy to the residents. Thomas, in particular, prays that he will last long enough to meet his idol. The action is primarily that of waiting. Green fills the week leading up to Diana’s visit by looking more closely at the lives of his characters. We learn more about Andre’s background and see him gradually slough off his initial hostility. We learn that Thomas and his sister have become estranged and see Pauline’s attempts to reconnect with Thomas. We see Marjorie become increasingly attached to Andre to the point that she is willing to break house protocols to help him.

Even though Casey and Diana deals with men dying of AIDS and their relatives and caregivers, the play is strangely not about AIDS or gayness unlike The Normal Heart (1985) by Larry Kramer or Angels in America (1996) by Tony Kushner. Other than a line or two for Thomas about cruising, gayness for Thomas seems to be mostly about breakfast with friends, and AIDS about losing them. Andre is inexperienced and has no friends so gayness for him is mostly about being kicked out of his parents’ house.

The kind of play Casey and Diana is most like are plays about an intelligent, witty person dying. It reminded me most of Brian Clark’s Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1978) and of Margaret Edson’s Wit (1995), where the focus is on a central character who jokes in the face of death. Casey and Diana also has elements of the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (1990) by Kander and Ebb, where the main gay character fantasizes about a movie star to take his mind off of the horrific reality of his life in prison.

In his Director’s Notes Andrew Kushnir states that the “villain” of the play is “how criminally long it took for the world to change. We ... could not muster enough care fast enough to avert disaster and catastrophic loss”. That is definitely the topic of The Normal Heart, but not really of Green’s play. We know Diana’s actions at Casey House become a catalyst for change, but that never occurs in the play. Kushnir comes closer to the play’s real subject when he speaks of the “residents who sought out – and achieved against all odds – a death that may have come close to something they’d call good”.

Discussion in Europe of what constitutes a “good death” date from ancient Greece with the death of Socrates as the prime example. In Plato’s Crito (360BC), Socrates refuses to be rescued from prison to escape his death sentence. He says (in Jowett’s translation): “I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic; that voice, I say, is humming in my ears, and prevents me from hearing any other”, meaning any other voice persuading him to live. In the 15th century there were books entitled Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) instructing people on how to have a “good death”. One advises the dying person on how to avoid such temptations as despair, impatience and pride and later instructs the dying person’s friends and relative on how to treat the dying person.

Though Casey and Diana features gay men dying of AIDS, what Green has really written is an ars moriendi play. That’s why the play is so moving. It may be based on a very specific incident but it subject is universal: “How do we best prepare ourselves for our final moments?”

The cast has clearly been inspired by Green’s play and by Kushnir’s direction. All six give absolutely impeccable performances. This is Sean Arbuckle’s 21st season at Stratford and it is a joy to find that he is at last the central character of a play. As Thomas, he is the figure around whom all else in the piece revolves and he gives an unforgettable performance. Arbuckle conveys all the layers of Thomas’s character. Thomas is the joker of the hospice but he jokes to hide his despair. He constantly makes fun of the staff, but that is partly because he knows how much he and the other patients depend on them. He claims he hates his sister but, as the play shows, he would like to heal the rift between them while he still has time. For all his outer brashness, when confronted by his vision of Diana, he is all humility and his voice takes on a softness he doesn’t otherwise use. Arbuckle provides a masterclass in how to project multiple sides of a character simultaneously.

Davinder Malhi is excellent as Andre. Anyone who saw Malhi in Young People’s Theatre’s live broadcast of Jordan Tannahill’s rihannaboi95 in 2021 will know how expert he is in embodying a young man consumed by fear. In Casey and Diana, Malhi demonstrates how Andre gradually moves beyond fear and distrust to accept his situation and the help of others. It is really through Malhi’s Andre that we realize what a momentous act entering Casey House really is: it is an admission that this is the place where you will die.

Linda Kash gives a lovable portrait of the volunteer Marjorie. Kash emphasizes Marjorie’s small town way of looking at things and expressing herself which provides a humorous contrast to the unfriendliness of the big city. Kash shows how Marjorie gradually develops motherly feelings toward Andre that are contrary to the protocols of the House. Though Marjorie is primarily a comic character, Kash fully conveys Marjorie’s pain, humiliation and grief which strike us all the harder for their being expressed by such a self-effacing character. Strangely, Green brings up the question several times why Marjorie has chosen to volunteer in an AIDS hospice, but he never allows Marjorie to give an answer.

Green does not give Vera, the nurse and Marjorie’s supervisor, as wide a range of emotions to express, but Sophie Walker counters this by suggesting that much lies suppressed under Vera’s authoritarian stance and strict demeanour. In one fine speech Walker does have the chance to let Vera explain what has learned in allowing herself one time to become too emotionally invested in a patient under her care.

Laura Condlln is superb as always in playing a character of conflicting emotions. She shows that Pauline’s anger at the staff and at Thomas are really products of her own frustration and guilt. As with Thomas, beneath Pauline’s outward hostility is a sincere longing for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Krystin Pellerin is in the unique position of being the first actor to portray Princess Diana at Stratford. With the help of Joshua Quinlan’s accurate costumes and with a study of Diana’s typical body language and pattern of speech, Pellerin becomes a surprisingly effective incarnation of the People’s Princess. Green is careful not to have Diana speak too much since too much would bring a person who is an ethereal ideal for Thomas too far down to earth. The one long conversation Green gives Diana and Thomas feels strained where they find a similarity in having the minutest aspects of their behaviour observed. Green never mentions it, but there is an unspoken poignancy the audience feels with regard to Diana, knowing that she who comforts the dying will herself die only six years after the events of the play.

To think of Casey and Diana as a play about AIDS or a play about Casey House is to put the play in danger of being merely an imagined slice of life drama based on a fait divers. If that were so we would have to wonder why the play exerts such an emotional pull. To think instead of the play as a study of the ars moriendi, specifically of Thomas’s gradual learning of how to die well, gives all the action that fills up the period of waiting for Diana’s visit a purpose.

Pauline tells Marjorie that Thomas is more afraid of dying than he lets on. Knowing this, we can see how this flawed and complex human being slowly readies himself not merely for Diana’s visit but for the moment when he will have to let go of life. Green has written a play of uncommon naturalness and depth which many more people will want to see than will be able to in its three-week run at Stratford.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Krystin Pellerin as Princess Diana and Sean Arbuckle as Thomas. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann; Resident at Casey House and Princess Diana. © 1991 Tim Graham; Sean Arbuckle as Thomas; Davinder Malhi as Andre and Linda Kash as Marjorie; Laura Condlln as Pauline. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.

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