The old “boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl learns she’s terminally ill” shtick has proven surprisingly resilient, long after Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw’s doomed affair set eyes watering in Love Story. But writer/director Jessica Kostuck’s new musical, 21 Days, puts a unique spin on this well-trodden tale.
Diagnosed with a mysterious illness, Julie (Elizabeth Conway) is given a mere 21 days to live. The twist is that only really good days count toward her tally; as long as things stay mundane she can live as long as she wants.
“Julie’s been extending her life by keeping her excitement level low but hits a point where she’s forced to question that choice,” Kostuck says. “It’s not intentional, but it could be a metaphor for the life of a young artist, torn between a pragmatic path providing financial security and doing what you love.”
Julie’s monotonous existence, without the smallest sense of joie de vivre, is shattered when she meets Ben (Ryan Anning), an awkward yet optimistic writer who offers the shot at love that will ultimately kill her.
“While the theme of doomed lovers is central to the show, it’s the theme of choice that’s more interesting,” Kostuck says. “Deciding to throw away her future for the sake of this relationship makes the decision almost suicidal. It becomes a question of whether falling in love is selfish or selfless.”
Their relationship is contrasted with that of Dan (Brendan Doherty) and Dal (Peter Perri), a long-term gay couple who did their own tango of terror during the courtship phase. “Dal initially runs because he’s scared of the kind of relationship Dan is offering,” Kostuck says. “He has to decide whether he’s ready for a huge, public commitment like marriage. Eventually he realizes it’s what he wants and comes running back, which serves as the inspiration for Julie and Ben.”
The show represents a big risk for Kostuck, who’s just returned to Toronto after a long stint in Montreal. The company’s slot in the festival predates the script; they were chosen in the lottery before having an idea for a show. Instead of remounting one of her old scripts, Kostuck took the plunge and wrote something from scratch.
“You can create the most amazing things under pressure,” she says. “The Fringe is a time to experiment and be bold because audiences are willing to take a chance on new theatre. It’s really an environment with no rules.”