“[Her] mother is dying… and [she] has lice… fuck.” Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman has been praised and heralded among the press in Toronto lately for writing the play Scratch when she was sixteen years old, after the death of her mother, and for having the bravery to step into the leading role of Anna to relive her mother’s battle with ovarian cancer, and her own struggle with head lice every night at the Factory Theatre.
Anna is one of those girls that I hated in High School. She is often selfish, sarcastic, and walks around like the entire world deserves to be glared at and cut down to size. And she gets the sex. She is not an entirely likable character; empathy may not overwhelm or move you, but Corbeil-Coleman bravely presents a realistic portrait of a teenager struggling to deal with the horrible fact that her mother is dying. Her pain, her emotions, her love, and grief shine through the angry, cold façade in glimmers and suggestive moments. And perhaps this is the more interesting dramatic choice.
Corbeil-Coleman performs herself in a meta-theatrical way, which also contributes to the feeling of slight alienation. At times Anna and her best friend Madelyn (Monica Dottor) are reminiscent of Peanuts characters; adults disguised as children and innocence smothered in skepticism.
There are moments where Corbeil-Coleman’s writing is magnificent, the words are perfect and the images are beautiful and linger in the mind. There is a tragic scene between Father (magnificently played by Kevin Bundy) and Aunt (performed with depth and vigor by Catherine Fitch) that is a mixture of troubling and touching. Anna also lends a poetic perspective on her own experience with people “stinking, reeking and sweating sorry” and the art of reading foreheads.
For me, the window into Anna’s world was through her best friend Madelyn. Perhaps that was because, it was Madelyn who was telling my story, the story of the outsider trying to connect, trying to find her own appropriate response to a grief that was not obviously hers, but still broke her heart. Monica Dottor played Madelyn with every perfect nuance of adolescence. Her monologue was heart wrenching and poignant and Dottor spoke the words as though she had written them herself, with an openness that sucked the audience deep into her experience.
Scratch is about storytelling, and it is difficult to tell a story about the deficiency of words to adequately describe a feeling of great pain and loss. It is difficult to tell a story of a teenager who seems unable to decide whether she wants to tell the story or not. It does seem as though Charlotte is forcing Anna onstage, and sometimes Anna can channel what Charlotte wants her to say, but sometimes she rebels it all and defers to the other characters to explain things for her. Does that work? I’m not entirely sure. Corbeil-Coleman writes in her programme notes that Scratch is about the “power of sharing your pain in the hopes that it will allow others to feel theirs” and she presents four very different, equally valid, responses to grief in this piece which could prompt dialogues and discussions about how humans connect, or fail to connect in times of crisis.
In the end, Scratch made me want to call my mom. Maybe that’s all that matters.
Scratch plays at the Factory Theatre until November 2nd. 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide). For tickets call 416 504-9971 or visit http://www.factorytheatre.ca/.