There can be little doubt that we live in rather tense and taut political times. It is almost impossibly difficult for thoughtful individuals not to be touched, affected or even make armchair attempts to rationalize, intellectualize or become introspective about it all while making sense of a new emerging reality. As many of the established traditions, mores, folkways, and societal attitudes that carried our ancestors through get challenged (and systematically erode) more and more, and in some cases become almost instantly eradicated in the once-postulated, now quite effectively entrenched, “global village,” it can become confusing to take a balanced and thoughtful position. No matter where one falls on this spectrum in veritable flux, playwright Alyson Grant allows us the privilege to observe from (not too) afar as her four exquisitely chiseled characters in Conversion take the stage one by one to let our inner voices vicariously – as well as strategically – position themselves on the figurative personal value-based chess board.
And what a captivating new stage it is at the Espace Knox theatre, the new artist space (and place to be) in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce – formerly a Presbyterian Church, now visually bedazzling in a different way: boasting enchanting theatrical lighting and filled with row upon row of seats for dramatic patrons, both novice and grizzled.
This is Grant’s third Montreal theatre jewel of the stage: daring to ask the bold questions, with masterful expert direction provided by Guy Sprung, and produced by contemporary-life-in-Montreal-inspired Infinitheatre, while featuring powerhouse performances by four emotively gifted actors (Diana Fajrajsl, Timothy Hine, Mike Payette and Denise Watt), espousing what is on many of our collective minds these days.
Its launching pad is brilliantly straightforward – a dinner party. One can almost hear an ominous tongue-in-cheek echoing chorus of “what could possibly go wrong?” as the aperitif-du-jour. It almost seems too perfect, as varied racial, religious and ethnic identities are presented at surface level in the four characters: Abi and Al, a young, well-positioned interracial couple and her diametrically opposite parents (the guests at the dinner party), Mary and Joseph (a somewhat ironic, if not iconic, example of clever theological nomenclature). The protagonist couple, who show their antagonistic side with time, are craftily presented as both being involved on the spectrum of the ultimate healing profession, medicine – Abi being a surgeon (her father is as well, of the “plastic” variety however), and her husband, who was also on his way to a promising medical career when he dropped out of school and began working in a refugee centre. Their professional titles aren’t the only difference between them, however. She is a secular Caucasian Jewish woman, whose mother had converted to Judaism upon marrying her father (she of Roman Catholic origin beforehand). He is a Black Canadian who sharply diverted his chosen career path, and met his future wife while in medical school. Yet healing is positively not the order of the day; rather, it is actually opening wounds, old and new – psychic wounds, admittedly.
Fajrajsl portrays the perfect foil, mother Mary, as devoted to emptying the nearest bottle of spirits as she is to attending this soon-raucous repast and subsequently spreading havoc and tension with beyond politically incorrect, deliciously unabashed grit n’ wit. Her husband Joseph, played to effortless perfection with submissive tendencies galore by Timothy Hine, is the dutiful long-suffering companion with a few skeletons in the dissection laboratory closet himself. Secrets and strife bubble to the cauldron surface as Abi and Al’s marriage and life goal schema is challenged, clashing with effortless combustible thunderclap supplied by Denise Watt and Mike Payette, respectively.
No subject matter is off-limits, no dinner conversation taboo is left untouched, and the connection between Abi and Al perilously hangs in the balance, or perhaps more to the point, is soon dangling over the proverbial precipice. It’s a ripped-straight-from-the-headlines confrontation for the ages, clearly à propos for the 21st century, and definitely one not to be missed.
Fortunately, no one in our fair city need miss it, as you can catch it in full throttle mode at the beautiful, new Espace Knox theatre until February 25th. Visit www.infinitheatre.com for more information or call the theatre at (514) 987-1774.