5 min

Mum’s the word

The dark secrets of orphans, mobsters & drag queens

Credit: Paula Wilson

What is it about kids without parents that makes them staples of pop fiction and theatre, all the way back to Oliver Twist, and earlier?

Simple: You don’t have to be an orphan to feel like one.

Orphans are the subject of Ed Roy’s latest play from Topological Theatre, The Mother’s Saint, opening next week at Passe Muraille.

Playwright and director Roy, himself raised in a foster home, felt compelled to explore his own and his mother’s past. She grew up in a church-run orphanage during the “Great Darkness,” that benighted era when Quebec was a priest-ridden society, controlled by the Catholic Church and its then-premier, Maurice Duplessis.

Not only unwed mothers, but single dads who couldn’t cope often dumped kids with the nuns; such was the fate of Roy’s mother.

Abuses in the province’s orphanages have since come to light, and several thousand unlucky kids, now the adult “Orphans of Duplessis,” have sought recognition and awards for damages, so far without much success.

But it’s the fallout of these sorrows upon the next generation that interests Roy. ” We have at least 3,000 orphans out there; no restitution or apology has taken place,” says Roy. “What about the progeny of these people? What is their behavior, what effect on society does it have? Some people, in fact most people, don’t make it.”

In 1997, Roy did research in Montreal during a stint as playwright-in-residence at the National Theatre School, then wrestled with ways to make his discoveries palatable as a story. “The challenge for me was, how do you take personal experiences and make them interesting to an audience? Fortunately, so much time had passed that I was objective, approaching it.

He was determined not to turn the piece into a Sunday night TV movie. “I didn’t want to put Madeline [the lead character’s mother], on stage as the abused, fucked-up woman. The marginalized individual, slightly retarded – it’s been done. That’s why we see a child [called Emily] through the stories of the adults, and so create what she became, by seeing what she was.

“I didn’t want to get stuck in the tragedy. It was the irony; how do you have faith when these things take place in the name of the church?” This meant creating a lead character (Robert) who shares some, if not all, of Roy’s own traits and history.

Delving into his mom’s troubled past, Robert meets a young woman at a Duplessis Orphans committee meeting. “But he’s averse to having relationships, because he’s got blocks because of his early life. He’s also being haunted by this apparition of this little girl [Emily, played by child actor Tess Benger].”

Eventually, Robert learns his mom’s stories were true, and much more traumatic than he could have surmised. This leads him to his brother, Montreal gangsters, L’Entrepot drag bar and the drug underworld (that still exists).

One could assume that Roy – articulate, productive, winner of several Dora theatre awards – comes from a comfortable middle-class background. Roy shakes his head. “I know that for the most part that is how the press has perceived me. But as I wrote I had no choice but to dig in deeper about what I knew intimately.

“Like the character in the show, I had to do this investigative work. I had walked away from the whole family-unit thing only to find out that 25 years later, I had to go back and talk to these people and find out the truth.”

He downplays the personally therapeutic value of these explorations. “Any artist is always drawing on influences they’ve already had. I wanted to approach the genre of the investigative mystery and throw a new spin on it, my spin, and tell this multifaceted story without just making it a story about that issue.”

And it won’t be weighed down with earnestness, or a docudrama feel. “I want to find the levels of how to engage an audience, not just through the drama – there’s a lot of black comedy in the play.”

Montreal’s ice storm in 1998 provided the impetus to start writing and the story’s setting. “I went on the first train I could get into Montreal right after the ice storm.” He found the storm had transformed the city, out of place and time. “It forced people to such extreme behaviours. And I thought, ‘This is potent.’ And of course, it’s Canada, it’s a well-used motif; why not use it?”

Roy workshopped the piece with Montreal actors, then returned to Toronto for successive rewrites and readings up to last fall. “Whatever sounds like three or four drafts, in the end is really like 10 or 11.”

The show has a sound design by Kevin O’Leary, sets by Topological Theatre associate Stephan Droege (Kilt, The Drawer Boy), and features Anne Anglin, Erin McMurtry, Michael Copeman (of Video Cabaret), Greg Campbell and Steve Cumyn (Prior in both parts of Angels In America).

Cumyn has been with the project from the beginning. Roy’s real-life lover, Cumyn, is playing the character inspired by Roy himself. The two have been partners for a dozen years. Friends have been known to dub them “Steve and Edie” (after ’60s singing duo Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme).

They have worked together before, says Roy, but “not very often. It’s interesting, after a long spate of not, ’cause then we see what’s come to bear from experiences we’ve had outside.

“The big thing is – and it can make for fireworks – Steve is very good at challenging me. He understands my process and can push me, as an artist, forward. Hopefully I can do the same with him.”

A tired Cumyn (pronounced “cumin”) was reached after rehearsal for his take on the play process and his role in it. He’s been directed by Roy in other shows, “but never one about his life,” says Cumyn. “There’s more of our relationship in here, I think.

“Oh God, it’s more personal. There’s a lot more at stake. Not just because I’m playing him. It’s not just his story; it’s his mom – finding out she wasn’t what he thought, and that what she was, wasn’t her fault.”

It sounds like the play, in some measure, is about forgiveness. “Absolutely. It’s not only helping him understand who his mother was, it’s helping me understand who he is, and [Cumyn laughs] why he is, the way he is – Mr Intense! And why he’s so passionate about things.

“I don’t know, the couple thing…. It was certainly hard to maneuver in the early stages of rehearsal, that’s for sure. I want the work to be excellent. If it’s not there I’ll say so, and that’s hard for Ed to take when it’s coming from me. We both want it to be something extraordinary, so if our relationship suffers, I think we can work through that. God, we’ve worked through worse.”

Has it been 12 years? “Thirteen.” In straight terms that’s, what, a silver anniversary?

“Something’s working,” says Cumyn. “I feel like we just met!” Does he feel like that while he’s working with Roy? “Yeah, he came in with a new hairdo- got rid of the page boy look, and suddenly, there’s this great vaulting forehead. And I thought, ‘Well, there’s the Ed I met 13 years ago.'”

Cumyn’s relaxed now and smiling at the memory of it. “Did Eddy mention that we met at Theatre Passe Muraille, doing Daniel [MacIvor]’s first play, Material Benefits? He played a gay guy and his character seduces me, and, well, we fell in love for real.”

Roy has headed Topological since 1991, devising such shows as Orphan Muses and a hit kid’s show for Young People’s Theatre, The Other Side Of The Closet, which has toured Canada and will open in San Francisco at the end of the month.

Roy wants The Mother’s Saint to intrigue through its action, character and visuals. “[The character of] Robert comes in from a relatively straight life and finds someone in the underworld who’s a gay Buddhist, who drags him metaphorically through the belly of the whale,” says Roy. “We go back to 1942, we see the orphanage through a child’s eyes: a nun is 30 feet tall….”

But that title: The patron saint of mothers? Mutherz ain’t…? Roy is mum.

“If I explain, it’ll give it away. I hope it gives you a good buzz when you see it.”

The Mother’s Saint.

$19-$28. 8pm.

PWYC. Sun 2:30pm.

Thu, Feb 17-Mar 12.

Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace.

16 Ryerson Ave.

(416) 504-7529