Stage Door Review 2024

Guilt (A Love Story)

Sunday, February 18, 2024


by Diane Flacks, directed by Alisa Palmer

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

February 14-March 3, 2024;

Centaur Theatre, Montreal

March 12-30, 2024;

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg

April 3-20, 2024

“The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt” (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930)

Diane Flacks’s latest play, Guilt (A Love Story), is an odd piece of theatre. I had not seen any of Flacks’s four previous solo shows, but I had seen Flacks as an actor many times and had only positive feelings of anticipation as I entered the Tarragon Theatre. After Flacks’s final bow, however, I left with a sense of relief that the show was not longer than 75 minutes. The reason is that in the course of her self-indulgent play Flacks never once convinced me that her story was interesting let alone worth relating to an audience.

In brief, Flacks’s autobiographical play describes how she imagined herself to be a supermom to the two children in her lesbian relationship of 20 years. In the throes of a mid-life crisis, she falls in love with another woman and this causes her marriage to break up. After experimenting with living apart yet alternating taking care of their children, Flacks and her partner decide their only course is divorce. Flacks, unsurprisingly feels guilty for having broken up her family. What is surprising is that she expects to receive our sympathy.

We first meet Flacks playing herself when she enters through the audience with a trayful of tequila shots on offer. She downs one and says she drinks – a lot – to drown her guilt. She says that being Jewish she knows all about guilt. The notion that Jewish people are more familiar with guilt than people of other religions is a canard that refuses to die. Surveys done since the 1960s have repeatedly shown that Jewish people are no more likely to have experienced guilt than Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic.

Nevertheless, Flacks claims authority here and points to her Jewish mother as proof. Obviously, Flacks can portray her own mother any way she wishes, but, perplexingly, the portrait she gives us is an antique caricature of a guilt-tripping Jewish mother that any comedian, Jewish or not, could paint.

For an explanation of what guilt is, Flacks turns to Sigmund Freud. Freud postulated that guilt is the product of the internalization of aggression and the unconscious desire for punishment for breaking one’s moral code. A person need not even have committed a crime in order to feel guilty but merely needs to have thought of doing so. Though not related to her topic, Flacks quotes Freud’s negative views of lesbians merely to prove that the father of psychoanalysis didn’t get everything right.

Strangely enough, though Flacks recurs to Freud several times in the show, she never mentions his deepest thoughts on guilt, namely that it is “The price we pay for our advance in civilization”. Guilt holds civilization together because it internalizes aggression. Externalized aggression would tear civilization apart. Feeling guilt is actually a good thing in the long run because it proves that guilty people at least have a moral compass they feel they have violated. After all, one of the defining features of a sociopath is the inability to feel guilt or remorse. It is a pity that Flacks leaves these insights of Freud out of her show because they would help universalize her feeling of guilt beyond the unedifying tale of betraying her wife and family that she prefers to focus on.

Oddly again, Flacks turns for help to people she ridicules. She says couples therapy is a washout but gives us no example of it. She seeks peace from a yoga instructor who disrupts her meditation sessions by airing her personal grievances. She seeks insight from therapist who has none. Flacks has made a point of stating she is Jewish and therefore knows about guilt. Yet, at no point does she mention Judaism’s method of coping with guilt known as teshuvah (תשובה). Its three steps are regret, confession and leaving the sin behind. Why does Flacks omit this or at least say what she doesn’t like about it?

Flacks goes to a lecture about guilt by an American neuroanatomist. She portrays the doctor as dullest speaker ever, but, at the same time, she uses the character to pass on scientific information about the physiology of guilt. Unfortunately, neuroanatomists are the wrong source for this information since they are concerned mostly with structure, not function. Nevertheless, Flacks has her doctor focus specifically on the physical symptoms of guilt as mediated by the hippocampus (involved in short-term memory and emotional processing) and the amygdala (associated with basic fear and anxiety). What Flacks’s neuroanatomist figure says is irrelevant to Flacks’s point since it is the emotional and cognitive effects of higher cortical processes which ultimately produce the consciousness of guilt.

In a show that should have no filler, Flacks needlessly has the doctor describe the experience of having a stroke where he feels blood rush from location to location successively causing body parts to become numb. But even this is wrong. Most strokes are caused not by a rush of blood flow but by poor blood flow to the brain. I’m always amazed that so many playwrights do not vet their medical or scientific facts before presenting them to the public.

The play concludes with Flacks’s Jewish mother who says that we can’t go through life without being hurt or without hurting other people. The statement contradicts Flacks’s earlier portrayal of her mother and suggests that people should not worry about guilt. The worse implication is that people should not worry about hurting other people.

Flacks’s most trenchant statement in the entire play is that guilt conceals. It can hide whether we are a monster or whether we have compassion. If only Flacks had pursued this question from the beginning she could have avoided all the time wasted knocking down straw men (or substantial figures she imagined as straw men) and concentrated on her discovery of the good or bad that lurks in people that a specific incident can call forth.

Forgetting that the play has been set, via the tequila shots, in the period when Flacks is still drinking to drown her guilt, Flacks takes us somehow into the future where all her problems with her ex, her new partner and her children have been resolved. She has neglected to tell us how she graduated from wallowing in her guilt to finally freeing herself from it and thus gives her show a wholly unsatisfying ending.

This is all very sad since Flacks is undeniably a fine actor. During the short running time of the play, she voices more than 20 different characters – male and female, young and old, contemporary and Biblical. It’s unclear why she, a privileged independent woman, feels that her plight is like that of Abraham’s Egyptian slave Hagar, whom he cast out into the desert, while Flacks, in contrast, checks herself into all-inclusive resorts. Flacks’s most amusing creation is probably the garrulous yoga instructor who demands silence while babbling on about herself. Her most poignant creation is probably her younger child with its serious small voice. But acting ability alone is not enough to save the play. That so much time and talent should have been wasted on Guilt is really a shame.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Diane Flacks in Guilt (A Love Story). © 2024 Cylla Von Tiedemann.

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