Review: Problem Child & The End of Civilization by Theatre at UBC

The Suburban Motel series holds a special esteem in Canadian theatre, as being some of the finest work ever penned by its most prolific and frequently produced playwright, George F. Walker. It is a cycle of six one-act plays, written by the author in 1997, in which a retinue of desperate individuals find themselves, for any number of grim and fraught reasons, residing in a cheap, run down motel on the outskirts of a city.


Theatre at UBC has chosen to stage two of the best works in the cycle: Problem Child and The End of Civilization. Both works are directed by Chris Robson, who commands intelligent, nuanced performances from his young, talented casts. The actors should be particularly commended for their bravery, as they are absolutely fearless in going to the dark places and portraying the broken, ugly people demanded by the scripts.


Melanie Reich & Scott Button in Problem Child. Photo by Tim Matheson

In Problem Child, a former drug addict and ex-prostitute, Denise, is holed up in a motel room with her ex-con, TV talk show obsessed husband RJ. The pair’s child has been taken by protective services at the behest of Denise’s mother, and they are anxiously awaiting word from their social worker. The baby has taken on an almost idol-like importance for couple, especially Denise, and both believe the baby is the only possible way for them to avoid slipping back into drugs and crime. Opposing them is Helen, their condescending, pre-concluding social worker, and their only ally is Phillie, a motel staffer with a serious drinking problem and pathological obsession with the concept of justice.


Denise and RJ are played by Melanie Reich and Scott Button. Reich is a caged animal, constantly pacing the stage in a heightened state of frantic agitation. This is nicely counterbalanced by Button, whose character proceeds through the motions with an almost unthinking simplicity, his anguish at the situation only belied by the occasional outburst at events unfolding on television. Amidst the squalor and conflict of the work, there is a palpable tenderness between the two, which the actors maintain even throughout their most aggressive fights.


As Helen, Jordan Kerbs nails the socials worker’s smugness and unqualified disdain for Denise, though it would have been nice to see her detached, clinical approach for slightly longer, before things got heated and personal. A comically-gifted Matt Reznek, as Phillie, brings much-appreciated levity to the play’s bleak events, but he is also a contender for being the most pitiable character as he searches, in his simple, confounded manner, for a single action that might make him feel good about himself.


Where the first play looks at a couple from the underclass struggling to get out, The End of Civilization features a middle class couple desperately trying to avoid slipping into the underclass. Henry and Lily find themselves checking into the motel so that Henry can look for work in the city, Lily’s hometown. Henry has been unemployed for two years and his desperation is manifesting itself in constant drinking and a smouldering resentment for the management who will not employ him. Their motel room is subject to frequent visitation by a pair of police officers who suspect Henry has committed a series of heinous crimes, and Sandy, a prostitute working out of the hotel who extends her friendship to Lily. The play’s events do not proceed in a linear fashion, instead it constantly hops forward and backward in time, as Walker slowly reveals the unconscionable actions these characters are willing to undertake in pursuit of happiness.


The cast is outstanding, without exception. As Lily, Christine Bortolin presents a prim and matter-of-fact facade that conceals the cold-hearted survivor lying underneath. Mitchell Hookey, the slack, slouching Henry, possesses a pitiable charisma, and one can not help but sympathize with him, even as he delivers poor justifications for committing the most heinous actions. Sandy’s character can easily come off as a walking stereotype or convenient plot device, but Tracy Schut makes much out of her little stage time, offering the audience a warm, complex human being. As the younger of the two police officers, Alex Pangburn brings much humour to the well-meaning, deeply depressed figure. As the older officer, Joel Garner as delivers a commanding, mature performance; the presence of his authority is a tangible thing, as is his burning desire to escape this increasingly complex scenario and return home to his family.


A final word of praise must be saved for the set of Wladimiro Antonio Woyne Rodriguez. Rather than simply creating a space for the actors to perform, his design cleverly reflects the themes and events of the plays. At eye level, the stage is a perfect recreation of a dingy, decrepit motel, however, a simple glance upward reveals that the ceiling is torn away. Where the wall would normally meet are jagged tears and drooping wall paper, with the torn remnants of the ceiling instead hanging high above the room as though some giant hand had ripped it off. It is hard to think of a more perfect metaphor for these play’s characters: mundane and destitute at a glance, torn and broken upon closer inspection.


Problem Child & The End of Civilization run until February 18, 2012 in the Telus Studio Theatre at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts at UBC. Click here for tickets and information.

Categories: Musings