Parents Night/The Bigger Issue
A Crazy Lady production
Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto
Until May 17, 2015
George F. Walker says he’s only channelling the voices he hears when he wades into a contentious issue to witness injustice, dysfunction and people under the pressure cooker, trying to do good work in impossible situations — a general description of what’s going down in our schools. Walker’s wife is a teacher; they’ve had three children in the public system; how could he not be attuned to the voices of protest, burn-out, financial strain and frustration coming from both parents and teachers?
As for Walker’s contention that “I’m just transcribing what they say,” we beg to differ. A lot of craft has gone into making those voices count and turning 65 minutes of hard-hitting tragicomedy into a cathartic event.
Parents Night, first mounted last year in Hamilton, and The Bigger Issue, a world premiere, are the first two playlets in a theatre cycle focusing on education.
First up is Parents Night, a tightly scripted, breath-takingly confrontational pas de trois between two parents of struggling seven-year-olds and the children’s beleaguered teacher. Into the empty classroom, in which little desks flank a display board, strides business-suited John (Matthew Olver) loaded for bear before the teacher Nicole (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) has even appeared. He picks up an artwork, tosses it aside with contempt, then makes for the finger-painting by his son Patrick as if it was a homing device. Judging a little girl’s work as Asian, he spews forth a critique of “social engineering”, teamwork that shores up “slackers” and an accusation that his son’s seven-year-old deskmate might be a subversive North Korean. John is divorced, a cuckold and a parody. He’s soon withered by the breakdown of teacher Nicole. Already at the point of meltdown, she is in a puddle after learning of her father’s death.
Enter Rosie (Dana Puddicombe), an even bigger shock to Toronto middle-class smugness. She’s dressed like a hooker and indeed is a lapdancer: cut-off jeans over zebra-striped hose, stuffed into black leather jacket and boots. She’s parent to Sonia, a child who’s already declared she’s gay. Sonia’s father is a drug dealer; Rosie, to put it mildly, is a parent with a brief. Where does Nicole (“I’m already at the peak of my niceness”) get off judging her and her child for their homeless condition? Nothing is ever resolved in this play, a triangle of fictional proportions in which the teacher is totally defeated: “It’s people like you who ruin this job for me,” she says.
Walker ratchets up the tension inherent in the conflicts by forcing a tragic storyline into a comedy format. In The Bigger Issue, concerning the parental complaints of Jack (Olver) and Maggie (Puddicombe), whose 12-year-olds are in teacher Irene’s (Murphy Dyson) class. Irene is accused of assault on a boy who’s “on the spectrum (of autism)” and who carries a butcher knife to class. Again a steady rant rises to an absurdist climax as the knife is pulled out. Through the din we hear a home truth from Irene: “I don’t want to be in this school. I might as well just join the police force.”
Director Wes Berger makes the perfect interpreter, fine-tuning all the symmetry of Walker’s script. The cast, especially the wide-ranging Sarah Murphy-Dyson, is pretty much flawless in its timing. Only one quibble: with the intensity of the writing and the rapid-fire delivery, is it really necessary to have everyone shouting at full volume? We know we’re meant to be worn down. We don’t actually have to be pummelled into the back of our seats.
Above: Matthew Olver, Sarah Murphy-Dyson and Dana Puddicombe in Parents Night
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann