Tom’s A-Cold is Deliciously "Canadian"

shane carty and matthew macfadzean
It seems absurd to me now, but the truth is that before 2004 and the exceptional Dr. Roberta Barker’s Canadian Theatre History courses at Dalhousie University, the concept of a “Canadian play” had never really dawned on me. Early in this class, while reading plays written by Canadians prior to the Second World War, we had a joke that you could tell a Canadian play from one written anywhere else because they always took place in the dead of winter and were about the isolationism of individuals within an oppressive, ominous and massive deathly landscape. Of course, since then we have seen Canadian plays written about nearly every subject imaginable, but David Egan’s play Tom’s A-Cold, playing until January 16 2011 as part of the Next Stage Festival brings us straight back to our frigid and isolated roots, proving that the methods of our theatrical ancestors still make for captivating theatre.
In 1845 the HMS Terror and Erebus set sail from England seeking the Northwest Passage through the Canadian North, and neither vessel were seen again. Our story begins in a small rowboat with two men, George Holworthy and Thomas Dowling, three years later and desperate just to survive. The play is beautiful in its intensity and its ability to confront disturbing issues of man’s relationship to nature and his inner wild beast, the primal human response to starvation, his survival skills and how these may conflict ferociously with his sense of morality, decency and his own identity as a civilized gentleman, sailor, friend, comrade, human being and British subject of the Queen. Yet, all this is revealed through the musings and idle, but necessary, diversions of two constipated, starving, anguished, hallucinating lost souls.
For director Daryl Cloran, he is wildly constricted in where he can take these men physically, for not only are they on a boat, but both are too weak to move very far or very quickly. This means that the intensity and the high stakes, the knowledge that one may kill the other to consume his body to keep from perishing from hunger, must be maintained, and exacerbated, within these close quarters. The tension builds and recedes, only to build again with heightened desperation, the power magnificently shifting between the two men like a hot potato being tossed back and forth. This play is really an exemplary one in the playwright’s use of two characters struggling to achieve their objectives, with the highest of stakes imaginable. Neither sailor knows whether his best chance of survival is for both of them to be alive, or for one of them to die and we watch as these two men develop a closer, almost interdependent bond, only to have it snap and then lead to at least thoughts and considerations for the ultimate betrayal.
The performances in this piece are harrowing. They both evoke such pathos, yet both men are also complex, filled with faults, easily offended, restricted by their respective strictly engrained British social statures, even on death’s nose in the middle of frozen nowhere, even after they have both become cannibals. Shane Carty is the more endearing “Everyman” as George Holworthy, whose one great love was a whore named Jenny who gave him the Clap. His performance is sweet, yet also deeply wounded, with much of his emotion deeply bottled and seething below the surface. Matthew MacFadzean is brilliant as Thomas Dowling, a man so far in denial he slips in and out of lucidness, and even once Holwothy is gone, he steps in and begins playing both parts to maintain his own deathtrap routine. MacFadzean keeps a strong sense of dignity, pride, haughty British ideals in his speech and his demeanour, while his own actions contradict them all with disturbing horror. He is so convincing regardless of his character’s mental state, that often the audience is tricked into believing that a hallucination is reality because MacFadzean commits to every movement, every moment with the absolute fortitude of life or death peril. It is truly a wonder to watch.
Tom’s A- Cold may not immediately speak to our current experience as Canadians, even though as I write this the snow is falling gently just outside the window, but it is always fascinating, and I think, pertinent, to remember how our country was first mapped out, discovered, and tamed and that many lost their lives while attempting it. At the same time, perhaps now that we mostly live within cities, many of us opting not to eat meat at all, considering ourselves the ultimate in civilized and domesticated, it is extremely significant for us to be reminded of the fact that no matter how we are dressed up or indoctrinated, at the core we are also animals, and we still have the instincts to prove it. We are not quite the masters of the elements we would like to be, and thus, this tradition for Canadian playwriting continues to survive.
Tom’s A-Cold plays at the Factory Theatre Studio (125 Bathurst Street) at the following times:
Saturday January 15th: 5:15pm.

Sunday January 16th: 9:00pm.

$15/ Evening Performances (7:00 and after start time)
$12/ Afternoon Performances (6:59 or before start time)

VISIT or call 416.966.1062 or 1.866.515.7799.

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