The Courage is In the Questions

melissa macpherson, erin mackinnon, brandon mcgibbon,
tom barnett, maurice dean wint, tom rooney, patrick galligan
photo by cylla von tiedemann.
When do my rights trump your rights and how does that constitute fairness? How can we strive for “equality” when so often specific demographics of society are given special consideration? Do we really want to be treated just the same as everyone else? These questions are at the root of Michael Healey’s new play Courageous, which I saw at the Tarragon Theatre on February 7th and is currently playing (with some significant cast changes) at the Citadel Theatre (Rice) in Edmonton until March 14th, 2010.
Michael Healey, most well-known for his Governor General’s Award winning playing The Drawer Boy (1999), is a terrific writer. In this play, he thrusts his audience into a dramatic fray as Tom, a Justice of the Peace, tries to keep the bride, Tamara, from killing her immature and dimwitted fiancé, Todd, and her promiscuous best friend, Lisa, long enough to get married. The dialogue is sharp, witty and crisp, so the audience becomes immediately invested in his characters and the world he has created for them. Much of Healey’s strength and charm as a playwright is in his continual balance between making his audience laugh and encouraging them to reflect on the complex issues that emerge from within the humour.
Tom, the Justice of the Peace, is a gay Catholic utterly preoccupied with reconciling his beliefs and his lifestyle. To make matters more complicated, he refuses to perform a marriage ceremony for Brian and Martin, citing the fact that his religion does not condone gay marriage. Brian, an adroit lawyer vehement in the protection of his rights, vows lawful economic revenge, while Tom’s partner, Arthur, fed up with Tom’s inability to “focus on properly sucking [his] cock,” seeks vengeance on both of them by luring Martin, with whom he had once had a one night stand, back into his bed. None of these characters are particularly honourable, but their weakness, their slippery contradictions and a steady dose of fear, insecurity and self-destruction makes them fascinating specimens of humanity.
Through it all, Michael Healy manages to keep driving home questions that I think deserve ardent contemplation, although I have a suspicion there are either too many answers for them or none at all. Can Christians claim that their belief that gay marriage is against the sacrament should be respected and upheld just as stringently as a gay person’s right to believe that marriage should be an equal right for couples of all beliefs, customs, cultures and genders? How far are we asked to tolerate the beliefs of others before “human rights commissions” are liable to become involved? In the play, Arthur makes the argument that Canadian laws protect its citizens from religion, and that in the countries in the world where religion reigns supreme, the people are the most oppressed. Surely there are certain ideologies that preach hatred and intolerance which must be eradicated to protect people from violence, subjugation, and tyranny, but doesn’t it seem ironic that we should have to have a world policy which is intolerant to intolerance?
The Second Act of Healey’s play returns to Tamara, Todd and Lisa and it has an entirely different construction than the First Act. Here, Todd acts like a narrator, affable, nearly endearing, amid his stupidity, apathy and his ability to be completely oblivious to the need for him to actively assume responsibility for himself and his young family. Todd is suddenly confronted with George, a recent immigrant from Somalia, who appears to be given special advantages by the Canadian Government, simply because he is new to the country. Healey skilfully alludes to the fact that this situation is a potential hotbed for envy to convert to racism, while choosing to tell another story. Instead, George becomes an invaluable friend as Todd and Tamara’s life continues to crumble into financial ruin and Postpartum Depression. This situation gives rise to just as many difficult questions centering on race, religion and the feelings of entitlement that come from being born into the Western World.
The performances in the Tarragon production were absolutely phenomenal. Melissa MacPherson gave a fierce performance as Lisa with evocative spurts of vulnerability which made her character rise beyond an unflattering stereotype. Erin MacKinnon hit the dramatic mark in Act One, but shone brightest in the Second Act as Tamara’s ability to function slowly regressed and her weariness consumed her wholeheartedly. MacKinnon was also exceptional in her realistic crying skills, which I greatly appreciated. Tom Rooney gave a subtle performance as the meek, impressionable Martin, which was complimented nicely by both Patrick Galligan and Maurice Dean Wint. Galligan was relentless as Brian, giving a performance that was both awing and impressive. Wint played Arthur with meticulous poise and staunch charm and made George the most likeable character in the play. Brandon McGibbon infused Todd with boyish, awkward, nonchalant amicability to incredible effect, which especially enlivened his interactions with the audience. Tom Barnett made Tom utterly fascinating: simultaneously admirable and exasperating, a weak man fraught with the strongest of resolve. Barnett brought so much life to this walking contradiction, it was impossible not to feel compassion for him. Richard Rose’s direction seemed seamless and connected the pieces of Healey’s puzzle together fluidly without forcing any one argument.
The play is called Courageous, but is it brave? I was struck by an informed article on the play by David Bateman at Xtra, which suggests that Healey approached the gay issues in this play in a cowardly manner. In my opinion, Courageous is not a ‘gay play,’ nor is it a ‘race play’ or a ‘religion play,’ it is a play based on the study of the interactions between all three. Can Healey remain objective in the creation of these characters? He certainly cannot simplify the issues. Yet, I think spawning debates, encouraging audiences to think critically, even if they are provoked to the point of wanting to scream back at a character mid-monologue, is essential to a living work of theatre. Healey does not connect all the dots, but he shouldn’t have to. He paints the world as being confusing and contradictory, and he refuses to feed his audience reassurances. It is in this way that I think this play has earned its title.  
Courageous plays at the Rice Theatre in the Citadel Theatre Complex (9828-101A Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta) until March 14th, 2010. For tickets or more information please call 780.425.1820 or visit online at www.citadeltheatre.com.