On Hearts & Minds & Trees

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laura burke in heartwood

The Doppler Effect have remounted their Mayworks Halifax 2013 hit Heartwood, written and performed by Laura Burke, at the Neptune Studio Theatre and it plays there, in conjunction with Annie Valentina’s Alien, until January 9th.

An autobiographical one woman play, Heartwood powerfully challenges its audience’s preconceived notions of Schizophrenia and the people who are battling it and living it every day. Indeed, Heartwood even confronts the medical profession’s own issues with defining the term and the idea that some doctors believe that if one dramatically recovers from Schizophrenia then that only proves that they were misdiagnosed in the first place. Indeed, even in a world that is becoming increasingly informed about the spectrum of disorders like Autism, Schizophrenia is still too often pushed to the shadows with a persisting stigma or taboo associated with it, fuelled usually by misinformation, ignorance and fear. Burke’s story and her perceptions about her journey and the incredible resilience and strength it has taken to get her onto the Neptune Studio stage is incredible, captivating and deserving of an audience.

As a writer Burke is gloriously poetic. Heartwood is rife with vivid and unique imagery that is haunting and evocative and poignant. Her depiction of the terror that seized her as she experienced the early signs of Schizophrenia on a city bus is gripping and her sudden triumphant expression of ownership and survival and the importance of forging her place in the community in slam poetry is rousing like a war cry. Burke is easy to watch onstage and with her self deprecating humour and the frank glimpses she gives us into a deeply personal journey of self discovery and self preservation, arguably against the odds, she keeps the audience rooted ardently to her side throughout her performance.

The challenge that I have with Heartwood as a play is that I find the beautifully eloquent, richly descriptive telling of the story a little limiting to the dramatic action. Burke performs the narration of a story from her past but rarely truly embodies the person who is actively living the experience. In this way, the audience is not able to connect directly with the play’s real protagonist, Past Laura. Instead, our perception of her is very carefully shaped and held at arm’s length by Present Laura, who acts as a sort of liaison- telling us far more than she shows us. It leaves Heartwood feeling very written and very performative, rather than an immersive experience where these theatrical wheels don’t show.

On the one hand, for a play about something as tumultuous and complex as Schizophrenia it seems strange that Heartwood is so meticulously ordered and that Burke is always so perfectly, exactly clear in how she expresses herself to the audience. Yet, given the history she describes with her need for control, dating back to the eating disorder she had when she was fifteen, one can start to see the form reflecting the content. Perhaps there is a cautiousness at play here as well because the danger of the subject matter still exists and that Burke needs to keep Past Laura at that emotional distance for the well being of Present Laura. There is certainly an interesting layering and blurring of reality and fiction and performance and experience here and that is part of what makes Burns so captivating to watch.

Annie Valentina directs Heartwood and does an excellent job of making the Neptune Studio stage seem to cozily swathe Burke so our focus is intensely centred on her at all times. She makes beautiful use of light and shadow, aided by Garrett Barker, but I wanted to have clearer transitions when Laura disappears into shadow and then back out into physical form. Are these shadows beautifully constructed images created by Present Laura to represent her past experiences or have we been suddenly catapulted into Past Laura’s brain? How do we as an audience get to these places and how do we get back from them? What about Laura?

I would encourage audiences to go and see Heartwood primarily because Burke is telling a truthful, rare and important story that will stir emotions and debate, and she is a formidable writer. If she has not already considered penning a memoir, I would strongly urge her to begin writing one. I think this story may be even more well suited to the page than the stage. Her prowess as a wordsmith is impeccable.

Heartwood plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) until January 9th while Alien plays until January 11th. Showtime is 8:00pm. Tickets are $25.00 (regular), $20.00 (underwaged), or $30.00 for BOTH SHOWS! (Available only by phone or in person). Tickets can be purchased at the Neptune Box Office (1593 Argyle Street), by calling 902. 429.7070 or at this website.

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