Tracy Weller and Amanda Boekelheidein Lion in the Streets
(Photo © Brian McCloskey)
Tracy Weller and Amanda Boekelheide
in Lion in the Streets
(Photo © Brian McCloskey)
Acclaimed Canadian playwright Judith Thompson does not shy away from gruesome subjects. Her last play, which recently visited the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was a mordant satire of Abu Ghraib called My Pyramids! However, she retains her penchant for the macabre even when examining rural life, as is evident in her award-winning Lion in the Streets, currently being revived by the Alternative Theatre. Underneath the placid veneer of her home and native land, Thompson grapples with issues of class and racial strife, sexual discrimination, molestation, and murder.

The play, through a series of vignettes, explores the burden of memory and the power of forgiveness. A young Portuguese girl named Isobel narrates. When the play begins, she's being bullied by a group of children, and it ends with a startling revelation about her character. Although it's never stated so explicitly, she appears to be a sort of gypsy, constantly persecuted, mysterious, and almost supernatural. Even when she does not speak in a scene, she lurks in the background, sometimes merely observing, occasionally mirroring the movements of other characters, and at times feebly muttering to herself in the style of an incantation.

She introduces us to the play's style of magical realism, which eases in to a world where a handicapped woman rises out of her wheelchair to ballroom dance with a dashing, muscular man; a dowdy wife confronts her cheating husband by stripping down to bra and panties in a fit of sexual longing; a cancer patient's suicide fantasy takes on a Shakespearean beauty; and a priest exits the confession booth to act out a harrowing memory in front of his former altar boy. Any twist is possible in the world of this play. However, those turns are usually for the worse.

Most of the cast assumes multiple roles, and it's a testament to their professionalism and specificity how easy the play is to follow. Amanda Boekeheide, in particular, is a chameleonic actress, playing a childhood brat, a sexpot "other woman," a mousy schoolteacher, and a cerebral palsy victim with equal assurance. Nathan Blew takes the award for a spot-on Canadian accent in his portrayal of Michael, the ex-convict who delivers the play's surprise ending, but is also adept at playing a white-collar worker, repressed homosexual, and a schoolyard-bully.

The scene between an aging priest (Jeffrey Clarke) and his flamboyantly gay former altar-boy (James Ryan Caldwell) is a standout of the play, thanks in no small part to the talents of these two actors. Rachel Schwartz and Tracy Weller are cast in the roles of attractive neurotics, from a betrayed wife, to an overzealous PTA mother, to an arrogant but discontent career woman. Tania Molina has the most difficult role as Isobel, as her presence must be felt onstage even when she has no lines; for the most part, she succeeds.

Director Kareem Fahmy is at once bold, firm, and delicate. Under his helming, the play's many shifts in tone are seamless, as are the interludes of dance, music, and movement. (Actress Rachel Schwartz doubles as the fight captain, and her choreography is serviceable.) Brian Ireland's minimal set design allows for the cast to make full use of the Abingdon Theatre's relatively expansive stage. Andrew Lu's subtle lighting differentiates between the imagined and real worlds, and Anne K. Wood's costumes are detailed and appropriate.

The Alternative Theatre's mission is to bring contemporary Canadian drama to New York audiences. If this play is any indication, it's not only a talented troupe, but its members are also apt cultural ambassadors.