Stage Door Review

Between Riverside and Crazy

Thursday, November 28, 2019

✭✭

by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Kelli Fox

Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

November 27-December 22, 2019

Church Lady: “Alway be free”

Coal Mine Theatre’s presentation of the Toronto premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy is a great success. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Like so many of Guirgis’s plays – Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (2000), Our Lady of 121st Street (2003) or The Little Flower of East Orange (2008) Riverside explores the sacred in the midst of the profane. Coal Mine has assembled a top-notch cast and under Kelli Fox’s direction the production pulls you into Guirgis’s world where even in the midst of despair miracles can happen.

The action focusses on Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas), an African-American who has the good fortune to live in a large apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City that has been under rent-control since the 1970s. His bad fortune is greater. He is a former policeman who was shot eight years ago while off duty by a white officer and his lawsuit against the city has still not been settled. His wife has died and his son Junior (Jai Jai Jones) is out of prison on parole. Walter is hoping Junior will go to college and turn his life around, but Junior seems already to be in violation of its terms.

Though permanently grumpy, Walter does allow Junior’s friends to stay in the apartment. There is Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a recovering drug addict who has suddenly discovered healthy eating, and Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), though she would like to think herself his fiancée, who is supposedly working on a degree in accounting but whose style of dress suggests to anyone who sees her that she’s on the game.

For the first half of Act 1 the play’s purpose seems to be simply to generate laughs from Walter’s pointed comments about the behaviour of the younger people around him. The action doesn’t take a direction until Walter receives a visit from his former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancé, Lt. Dave Caro (Sergio Di Zio).

It turns out that Walter received an offer of compensation from the city eight years ago, which he rejected along with every offer since. A new administration wants to get rid of old cases and Audrey and Dave have come to tell Walter its final offer. Walter still won’t accept. Dave details what Walter’s refusal will mean. He will lose his apartment because he is already in violation of many of the terms of the rent-control agreement such as the harbouring of unsavoury characters. Dave says he could arrest Junior right now because the police have been turning a blind eye thus far to Junior’s selling of stolen electronic equipment. He could arrest Walter for not turning Junior in.

Even in face of the destruction of his whole world, Walter does not give in. The shooting left him impotent which means that he could not sexually please his wife in the final years of her life, a fact that he bitterly regrets. As an audience we are torn between thinking Walter a fool for rejecting the offer or thinking his a hero, albeit a self-destructive one, for standing up to the racism inherent in the system. What provokes Walter’s greatest anger is Audrey’s suggestion that Walter’s claim that his being shot was racially motivated may not have been true.

When Act 1 ends and Walter is attacked in his own home, we assume the play will take an increasing negative downward course. This does not happen and for reasons we could never foresee. The turnaround happens because of the weekly visit of the Church Lady, something Walter has been dreading since the start of the play. It happens that Walter’s regular Church Lady cannot make her visit and a substitute from Brazil (Allegra Fulton) has been sent in her place. What follows is one of the most hilarious and mind-boggling scenes in recent American drama. I will not reveal what happens but it completely changes the course and tone of the drama. The fact that it comes out of nowhere could be considered a dramatic flaw by some, but its unexpectedness happens to be part of its very essence.

From this point on no scene has a predictable outcome. In retrospect we see that the picture of Walter’s household that Guirgis painted early in Act 1, may have been humorous but was still a picture of spiritual stasis. The mere fact that Walter prefers to sit in his late’s wife wheelchair symbolizes a lack of will to move on both past her death and past his having been shot. Oswaldo tells Walter that Walter is eating “emotionally” when he chooses pie and whisky for breakfast. We think it’s a joke but we discover Oswaldo is right. Walter’s eats unhealthily as if there were no reason to live and he drinks to numb the anger he continues to nurture about past wrongs.

The Church Lady’s visit changes all that and she compares her visit explicitly to the advent of divine grace. Thus, what began as an almost sitcom-like picture of bickering among lowlifes is transformed into a mysterious parable about grace that the Catholic catechism calls “the free and undeserved help that God gives us” that “surpasses the power of human intellect and will”.

Crucial to making this unusual play work are the grounded performances of the entire cast. Principal among these is the magnificent performance of Alexander Thomas as Walter. Thomas is excellent at presenting Walter as a cantankerous older man, but beneath that humorous surface Thomas also intimates that Walter’s unexorcised demons of the past are eating away at him. At the same time, he shows that Walter’s kindness to strangers like Oswaldo and Lulu and a dog he claims to hate as well as his faith in Junior demonstrate that he has a gentler nature that he won’t admit to. In his bargaining with Audrey and Dave in Act 2, Thomas gives his voice a ring of earnestness that is almost frightening.

We have little insight into Junior in Act 1, but in Act 2 Jai Jai Jones reveals the young man as a flawed human being who may have the habits of a petty criminal but who really does love his father and longs to have some affirmation of love from him. In Act 1, Guirgis strangely focusses more on Junior’s friend Oswaldo. Oswaldo calls Walter Pops just like Junior does and Nabil Rajo gives us the feeling, beneath all his joking and health food advice, that Oswaldo is another lost young man like Junior who regards Walter as the closest to an ideal father he has. Zarrin Darnell-Martin makes the most of the underwritten part of Lulu. The strength of Darnell-Martin’s portrayal, like those of Jones as Junior and Rajo as Oswaldo, is to suggest that an unspoken unhappiness underlies their apparent nonchalance.

As Audrey and Dave, Claire Armstrong and Sergio Di Zio give masterful performances. Though both police officers are on the same side and truly convinced that Walter should take the latest offer for compensation, Di Zio shows that Dave is not able to conceal the benefit that this deal with give him in his career, while Armstrong makes Audrey completely altruistic in wanting what is best for Walter. Yet, Armstrong and Di Zio also demonstrate that there is a certain hardness in both, closer to the surface in Dave than in Audrey, where Walter’s intransigence can strike anger rather than empathy.

Allegra Fulton’s performance as the Church Lady is a miniature masterpiece. Fulton is able to make the woman’s transformation from meek, embarrassed do-gooder into an incarnate supernatural force not merely believable but awe-inspiring.

Anna Treusch has built a set for Walter’s apartment that must be the largest the Coal Mine has ever used given that it has annexed part of the lobby space to be complete. Treusch gives us Walter’s kitchen and the balcony off of it plus an adjacent living room and a bedroom next to that. The audience enters from the lobby through the front door of the kitchen set and must walk through the other two rooms to find seats on three sides of the playing area. Since she has only a narrow piece of wall to use in the kitchen part of the set, Treusch can’t really convey the dilapidation of the apartment that Guirgis details in his stage directions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the actors play within inches of the audience is exciting.

Kelli Fox’s direction of the action in this odd playing area is so natural that we soon cease to think of the playing area as unusual. Michelle Bohn seems to have had fun in choosing the skankiest outfits possible for Lulu. And Steve Lucas’s lighting ably conveys both the natural and supernatural aspects of the action.

For those who don’t know the plays of Guirgis, Riverside would make a fine way to get to know a playwright who cares deeply for the spiritual welfare of his characters no matter how foul-mouthed the ways they use to express themselves. Those familiar with Guirgis will enjoy seeing how Riverside fits into and, in fact, helps elucidate issues in his other works. In either case, Coal Mine’s production of Between Riverside and Crazy provides the kind of emotional and intellectual thrill theatre-lovers live for.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Jai Jai Jones as Junior, Alexander Thomas as Walter and  Nabil Rajo as Oswaldo; Sergio Di Zio as Dave, Claire Armstrong as Audrey, Jai Jai Jones as Junior, Alexander Thomas as Walter and (behind him) Zarrin Darnell-Martin as Lulu; Allegra Fulton as the Church Lady and Alexander Thomas as Walter; Claire Armstrong as Audrey and Alexander Thomas as Walter. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.coalminetheatre.com.