I Am Yours
by Judith Thompson
Theatre Free Radical
Memorial Hall, April 2006
"Harrowing" is the word most commonly used to describe the work of Judith Thompson, and her early play I Am Yours is surely one of the reasons. What might seem a fairly straightforward (if nightmarish) domestic melodrama about betrayal, sibling rivalry, obsession, pregnancy and childbirth becomes rather more than that because of the scattered shards of often incomprehensible but always suggestive hints about the characters' motives and backgrounds, and because even when we least understand the characters we find ourselves listening sympathetically to their compassionately caught and represented voices. It's almost as though Thompson, over and over, were saying, you really have no business liking or having sympathy for this person, but listen: really, now -- you do, don't you?
Unlike much of Thompson's work, I Am Yours plays no games with reality: what we see is what we're to know happened. The unstable (possibly bipolar, possibly schizophrenic, but certainly strangely attractive) Dee is in the process of pushing the helplessly devoted Mack out of her life with her impossible and inconsistent demands: at a crucial moment, Toilane, the lost soul who has just become the supervisor of her apartment, falls desperately and obsessively in love with her and, oddly but somehow understandably, they conceive a child. Meanwhile, her older sister Mercy's desperate and unfulfilled life on the west coast has fallen apart and she's suddenly arrived in the midst of Dee's problems. Astonishingly, what becomes the focus of the play is Dee's pregnancy and the irrational and nearly unbelievable obsession with the baby on the part of Toilane and his mother -- and, even harder to believe, on the part of Dee, who becomes obsessed with the life growing inside her and decides she must bear (and give away), the baby. The consequences of all this, as you might expect, are awful for everybody. To carry this all off in a way that brings an audience not only to accept, but to sympathize with, all these characters is an overwhelming challenge, and one that could only be met by a powerful production and a group of six amazing actors. In large part, Len Falkenstein's production meets the challenge.
For my money, a better cast has rarely been assembled in Fredericton (one might be tempted to say Falkenstein has put on an all-star game). Robbie O'Neill is, as always, rock-solid, thoughtful and focused in a range of small roles -- most memorably as the lost fantasy love of Mercy's life, surprised (twice) at having this woman inexplicably throw herself at him. Scott Shannon generates powerful sympathy in what is, finally, a pretty passive role: his Mack is victimized by everyone around him, remembering his childhood and adolescence with guilt and a conviction that he probably deserves whatever happens to him, trying to reason with Dee's near madness, convincing himself that her pregnancy is the event that might bring them back together.
Derek Nason's Toilane, the post-delinquent spoiled mama's boy who conceives a passion for Dee (beginning, oddly and yet somehow appropriately, with her feet), and then, building on the delusion that a night's passion is a lifetime's love, decides that possessing the baby will be a way of possessing Dee, is a remarkable creation: his full-lipped vulnerability and truculence and profound incomprehension written both on his face and his body. Like Mack, Toilane is fundamentally a victim, although it's his decision (manipulated by his amazingly dominant mother) to try to reclaim the baby that leads to the play's final disaster. That mother, as played by Julie MacDonald, is the play's most challenging character, in some ways: while everything about her -- her selfish, possessive devotion to her errant and useless son, her obsessions and passions, are all in some fundamental way repellent, it's also true that, in MacDonald's performance, we come to sympathize with her class-based hatred for the bourgeois ponces who so pointedly condescend to her and her son. As she forces her entrance into Dee's apartment, parodying and exploiting the upper class politeness that she sees as a tool for gaining power, she seems more understandable than she has any right to be.
Dee's lost sister, Mercy, is another challenge: desperate to escape the shadow of her more attractive younger sister, offering herself to the older man (and consequently enduring the taunts of her adolescent "friends" in a remarkable memory scene) and building the memory of kissing the man who drove her to school into a hopeless fantasy, she arrives just in time to witness her sister's crash, and to betray her at the crucial moment. Marissa Robinson, cast profoundly against type (Mercy is supposed to be older, uglier, and overweight), creates an amazingly sympathetic, sometimes practically sensible and sometimes simply cowardly, portrait of yet another of Judith Thompson's lost souls. Her desperate yearning to recapture her lost moment of unfulfilled passion (her line, "it's just that I see you and all I want is for you to touch me again," is used as a motif on the production's poster) is palpable, especially in the scene where, having just abandoned Dee, as she goes into labour, to the mercies of the predatory Toilane and his even more implacable mother, meets her fantasy driver on the street.
But finally the evening belongs to Tania Breen's Dee. Anchoring the production with her disciplined abandon, screaming in rage and then dissolving in remorse, Breen somehow makes us care profoundly what happens to Dee, even as we see how powerfully deluded and self-destructive she is. I was particularly struck by how, as Dee backs away from the insistent Toilane, Breen's body tells us she is in fact about to give in at the same time as her voice says she isn't. She is similarly persuasive as Dee goes into labour, dealing with the importunate Toilane and his mother -- and with her sister's panicked dash for the door; and, at the end, deluded and smiling and cooing pathetically through the nursery window at someone else's baby. I have admired Breen's work in many productions over the years: the completeness with which she abandons herself to a role, and the discipline with which she focuses on it, has never served her -- and us -- better.
Even more important, of course, than the individual performances is the way the whole fits together: the ensemble work among the cast is focused and engaged. Everyone lies to everyone else, and we feel the pressure of those lies in every situation. Other important factors include the predictably fine musical background by Mike Doherty, the precise and complicated (and perfectly timed) lighting design by Greg Shanks and the surprisingly effective sound design (I especially liked the rainstorm we hear at one point) by Max Boyle.
All this creates an evening of theatre that makes it possible to ignore the fact that Judith Thompson, however strong a premise she's created, and however brilliantly she's imagined the characters, doesn't seem to have found a way to end it. It's not until you're walking out of the theatre that you think, wait a minute: the sudden death in a Sudbury motel of Toilane's mother is just the kind of arbitrary coincidence Aristotle warned playwrights against. And you start asking other hard questions: how did Toilane and his mother escape with that baby, and how did Dee get to the hospital, and why did Mack ever think the baby could have been his . . . yet, somehow, the questions seem not to matter so much in comparison with the power of the whole experience. Perhaps it's all Judith Thompson's way of telling us not, after all, to take this as a domestic melodrama, but as a poetic meditation on things locked inside, on obsession and the yearning to belong, to have, to connect, to possess.