Young boy blossoms despite bloom’s focus on pain

Written by Guillermo Verdecchia. Directed by Soheil Parsa. Until April 8 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. BuddiesinBadTimes.com or 416-975-8555.

“Oh, nostalgia. Oh, before. Oh, happy lie,” bemoans Gerontion, confined to a wheelchair in the crumbled remains of his home. As his sight, physical ability and grip on reality slide, the man is overcome with cynicism and anger at the war that has destroyed civilization. The recipient of this bitter creed is a lonely audience composed of a young boy, found and raised by Gerontion in his home — which he calls Rat’s Alley.

Playwright Guillermo Verdecchia’s play bloom premiered in 2006 with Modern Times Stage Company, directed by Soheil Parsa. The same team reunites this year in a production at Buddies in Bad Times, with an intertextual approach to how we tell and retell stories in times of trauma — at a time when popular entertainment is dripping in nostalgia and “reboot culture” has us constantly looking backward, hoping to recapture fragments of the past in our modern pastimes. Gerontion (played by Peter Farbridge) takes inspiration from classic literature — his speech poetic and verbose, reflecting his source material. Even without his sight, the tall stacks of books that have survived years of war that surround him in Anahita Dehbonehie’s set design seem to seep into his mind through osmosis. Verdecchia’s play is itself an adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” and is inspired by the Gulf War, pulling as well from other great (usually white, usually male) authors from the classic lit canon.

But, like Gerontion (played by Peter Farbridge, reprising his role from 2006, using full advantage of his lung capacity, playing the old man at maximum ranting level) warns, looking back appears only to poison his current disposition. The relentless moans let Verdecchia and Farbridge flex their bombastic muscles, but Farbridge keeps us at a distance with his performance, waving his arms and pontificating as if from a lectern. A glimpse of his past reveals a much more straightforward speaker — the difference in his speech may reveal how war, stress and destruction deteriorate the mind as they do buildings and nature, but it means the majority of the play is textually dense but emotionally flat. Memories of a long-lost love, Marie (Kim Nelson), add a dreamlike opportunity to see Gerontion taken off guard, where Marie can hold court and challenge his apparently steadfast views on the world.

But the Boy (an earnest, androgynous Liz Peterson), on the other hand, clings to stories to make sense of himself and his world, having grown up without the “before.” He constantly asks for the story of how he came to Gerontion, to sing old drinking songs, and to put together the pieces of his identity. Parsa’s production is strongest not in its exploration of a tired and unhappy man’s mind, but in his depiction of hope and innocence in times of war, told mostly through the Boy, who finds strength when he realizes he can make his own story in the world instead of relying on those Gerontion tells him inside the house (where light descends through a window above them, as if they’re constantly the bullseye of a target, in Michele Ramsay’s lighting design).

Early in the play, Gerontion holds the Boy after a group of planes fly low overhead, and tells him: “Everything comes back.” The planes, memories, stories, trauma — everything may come back again and again to hurt or help us. Verdecchia’s bloom tends to dwell in the former, with a dense layer of text to shield the audience from any wisdom Gerontion might have gleaned from his life. Fortunately, Peterson’s Boy gets to blossom.

TORONTO STAR

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