The Crackwalker is a play about five people in Kingston living on the outskirts of society and dealing with mental illness, poverty and addiction. Published in 1980 by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, The Crackwalker has received a lot of praise for presenting an unflinching look at its subject matter. Edmonton theatre company Kill Your Television has brought the acclaimed play to audiences at the ATB Arts Barns May 1 – 10.
All actors involved in the production – Nadien Chu, Beth Graham, Sheldon Elter, Nathan Cuckow, and George Szilagyi – gave impressive performances as their characters, with each actor showing a lot of depth in the physical nuances of their performance, and especially in their character’s dialects. I really enjoyed how each character’s physical ticks and dialect gave insight into their past, without ever having to explicitly tell the audience where they came from. Particularly admirable was the colloquial accent and speech impediment Nadien Chu adopted for her role as Theresa, a mentally-handicapped lady. Nadien’s dialect and emphasis of some words over others emphasized Theresa’s innocent mindset and allowed us to imagine some of the contributing factors to her current situation.
Another highlight for me was the character development of Nathan Cuckow’s portrayal of Alan who, over the course of the play, transformed from a mostly normal guy with a few physical ticks to a man perhaps in the middle of a paranoid schizophrenic episode. Ever so subtle at first, by the time you start to notice Alan’s decline and delusions, he’s already beyond a place where the other characters can reach him.
The set, designed by Daniela Masellis, was also very effective. Initially appearing as a concrete and steel jungle resembling a back alley, it transformed into any number of places – a living room, a front step, a park, or yes, a back alley. The set design, and the emotions it evoked in me throughout the play reminded me of the set Cory Sincennes designed for Where the Blood Mixes. Both sets used color, texture, and the audience’s own associations to create a backdrop for the story that evoked images of where the story takes place – in the case of The Crackwalker, a run-down neighbourhood in Ontario – while leaving the actors free to create scenes in the audiences minds through the way they used the space.
While the acting and the production elements of Kill Your Television’s The Crackwalker were enjoyable, I have to admit I left the theatre wanting more. I didn’t feel as though I was able to connect with the characters because I didn’t truly understand what was motivating them and what they wanted to achieve over the course of the play. I’m not sure what journey a “day in the life of” piece takes the audience on – especially when we have seen similar themes on television, film, books or in the theatre. What I wanted from The Crackwalker was insight into the particular characters on stage – how they got to be in the situation they are in, what their hopes are, and what they are striving for. Given all that has happened since 1980, I was hoping I would be sparked to think about the social, political, and economic events that put those characters in the positions we find them in at the start of the play and whether those conditions are the same in 2014. While Judith Thompson’s script certainly allows us to get to know the characters as we find them in the play, for me it didn’t evoke thoughts of the larger surrounding systems of the lives the characters lead leading up to and after the action of the play. Instead of being left with questions about our society and what we can do to prevent people from having to live the way the main characters do, I was left with questions about why the play didn’t raise these issues for me.
The Crackwalker plays May 1 – 10 at the ATB Arts Barns. Tickets are $15 – $25 and can be bought from Fringe Theatre Adventures.