It’s Gordon versus Gordon in Theatre Network’s season closer

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Ben Stevens and Joe Perry in Gordon. Photo credit: Ian Jackson.

Do your family reunions feel like they’re heading to the inevitable moment where you’ll feel like killing someone? Metaphorically speaking, of course. No matter how annoying cousin Tim or Aunt Martha is, at the end of the day you were just using the figure of speech, right?

That’s not the case with the family reunion you’ll witness in Theatre Network’s production of Gordon by Morris Panych, where the prodigal son comes home to the delight and eventual dismay of his father. Catch this dark comedy about family, criminal empire-building, and a new take on the nurture versus nature debate at The Roxy on Gateway until May 15.

Walking into The Roxy on Gateway, the audience is welcomed by with set and costume designer Megan Koshka’s take on a man cave that the owner has given up on cleaning or upkeeping, instead keeping it held together with dirt, bodily fluids, and alcohol. For this final show of Theatre Network’s 2015/2016 season, the playing space is arranged as a corner stage, with the audience to the side of the kitchen of this little house in Hamilton, Ontario.

We meet the young gang of aspiring career criminals in the play’s opening moments – leader Gordon (Joe Perry), assistant Carl (Ben Stevens), and Gordon’s girlfriend Deirdre (Patrica Cerra) as they break into the kitchen of this broken-down house. Soon we are joined by the more than slightly inebriated homeowner, Gordon (Brian Dooley) – that is, Gordon senior, not to be confused with his namesake that is leading the younger group.

Once introductions are made (‘it’s me, your son, Gordon… since the day I was born!’), we learn along with old Gordon, that his son, Carl and Deirdre are going to be staying with him for a while. That’s no problem, though as Gordon is so happy his son has returned home from college, ready to start a business with his college buddy – as his son tells him. The only problem is Gordon soon finds that maybe his son meant to say ‘prison’ instead of ‘college’. And maybe that business is actually a criminal empire based on killing people, selling drugs, and theft. As things come to a head, the suicidal elder Gordon has to decide whether he wants to leave the world with the criminal he contributed to creating or whether he should (as he says) ‘save the world’ from his son.

Brian Dooley & Joe Perry in Gordon.

Ben Stevens and Joe Perry in Gordon. Photo credit: Ian Jackson.

The histories of the characters and the way that influences their present and future is really the star of Gordon.  These characters both repulse and create compassion in the audience as we learn more about the circumstances and choices that got them to where they are now. In particular, we learn about the younger Gordon’s childhood where his father was either drunk and abusive or absent (‘I worked the night shift!), and the disturbing ways he found to amuse himself ranging from arson to killing animals in the neighbourhood. The elder Gordon progresses from a self-admitted unfounded faith in his son’s humanity (saying of his son as a child, ‘he was a twisted little fucker’) to the realization that he has to stop making excuses for his son’s behaviour and learn to face his own failings as a parent in raising him to be a good person, coming to the realization that he needs to fix the problem that he has been complacent with until now.

In the secondary characters, we find Carl dealing with feeling aimless and ethically conflicted and Deirdre – the lone female presence in this play pregnant with young Gordon’s child – feeling pressured to have or not have an abortion, and both terrified to stay with or leave her friends.

In typical Theatre Network style, Edmonton’s community of emerging artists is well-represented in Gordon. This is one of the rare times I’ve seen Ben Stevens in a serious role and he nails it. Despite the serious undertones, Morris Panych’s script is hilarious, often at the expense of Ben’s character Carl, and Ben finds the balance between the comedy and the pain that it barely hides. As Deirdre, Patricia Cerra transforms into a girl barely out of high school whose anxiety and consideration of the tough choices in front of her – not just whether to have the baby, but about who she is going to become – is revealed behind her tough girl facade.

Brian Dooley is perfect as the hard-living older Gordon in his perpetual state of drunken muttering. It was a delight to watch Brian explore his character’s range of emotion from drunken elation at Gordon’s return to devastation upon finding out his son’s true career choice.

Joe Perry’s role of young Gordon was a difficult one, not in the least because the script itself seems confused about Gordon. On the one hand, the script includes indicators of his psychopathic tendencies like stories about the animals he tortured as a child, his lack of empathy for anyone, hints that perhaps his mother’s fall down the stairs that caused her death wasn’t an accident, and sudden mood changes. On the other hand, you have genuine moments where he shows remorse for his actions or others where he doesn’t seem to have a clear plan of how to move forward or even understand the concept of return on investment of time. You even have to question why he chose Carl – someone who clearly doesn’t want to be part of the criminal empire Gordon aspires to – as his sidekick. As a result of these inconsistencies, Gordon the son neither comes off as the psychopath the other characters treat him as, nor the farcical criminal some of the scenes play out as.

Perhaps through this character that seems to waiver between being a psychopath and being inept, Morris is trying to move the conversation beyond nurture versus nature and towards the idea of nurture and nature – saying it’s not one or the other that determines who a person becomes, it’s both. Psychopathy is not an intrinsically good or bad trait. It a set of characteristics that enable some people to become criminals and others to become CEOs. As a child, Gordon clearly showed characteristics of a criminal psychopath, but by the same stroke, his shortcomings in terms of what is needed to succeed as a criminal are more than obvious. Gordon opens the door to the conversation about how the way one is raised plays into the adult they become. Gordon begs the question what would have happened if Gordon wasn’t raised in an abusive household? Would those tendencies have been channelled into something more productive than trying to build a criminal empire in Hamilton? Regrettably, I found the way the character waivers back and forth inspired me to focus more on whether he was or wasn’t a psychopath and distracted from the larger themes of the show regarding the family unit and the factors that influence what kind of person a child grows up to be.

Gordon plays at The Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Boulevard) April 28 – May 15. Tickets are $24 – $28 through Theatre Network’s box office, except on two-for-one Tuesdays (May 3 and 10).

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