In a cryptic culture of addiction, fear and oppression, few wonder how they got there. A few more wonder how to escape. But most die quietly, wreathed in a mind-controlling, memory-erasing blue mist in Greg MacArthur’s play Recovery, playing on Granville Island until Dec 9.
“Recovery is about the rise of fascism and the loss of the individual in society,” explains MacArthur, a queer playwright based out of Toronto and Montreal who’s been involved in over 30 productions of new work for stage.
The play focuses on five individuals who live and work in an isolated recovery centre somewhere in Antarctica. The audience is never explicitly told what the residents are recovering from; MacArthur chose to leave that information vague. Instead, he focuses on the concept and culture of recovery and addiction.
“The actual addiction and what they are addicted to is kind of irrelevant for me,” he says. “It could be anything, it could be bananas. All of a sudden you start reading in the papers ‘you eat too many bananas, you’re addicted to bananas’ and if you hear that enough you’ll begin to believe it.”
Recovery opens with the arrival at the centre of Ben (Sean Devine), a bookish music teacher. He is greeted by Clare (Kathleen Duborg) a perpetually upbeat employee. They engage in idle chitchat about the centre’s facilities and the dogma of the unnamed company that runs it. “You say you don’t have a problem,” Clare tells Ben. “But that’s the first sign you have a problem.”
“We take a hands-off approach here,” Clare tells the audience. “There’s no therapists or doctors. The therapy happens after the staff leave.”
The therapy is a blue vapour that seeps through the vents each night. In some residents it creates a certain euphoria, in others it instills fear, in others asexuality. Everyone who inhales it suffers from headaches, fuzzy thinking and diarrhea. It’s to be expected, we’re cryptically told. We are left to wonder what other negative consequences the vapour may leave in its wake.
Is it, for example, gradually wiping out people’s memory? At one point Clare has trouble remembering simple things like the colour of her bathmat at home or whether her sister wore earrings. Piece by piece, the residents’ memories slip away.
Soon the characters have resigned bits of their individuality over to this new institutional identity of recovery, until their unique personalities meld into an Orwellian chill. This play screams of the danger of complacency and apathy. Left unchecked, our ambivalence can feed into an all-consuming monster.
MacArthur says he felt compelled to write Recovery in response to the political situation in Canada and the United States. “For any kind of fascist rise, or rightwing thing, the governments depend on people being complacent or closing their eyes or ears and following the crowd or believing what they read,” he says.
“It all comes from a very emotional reaction to what’s going on,” he continues, pointing to the US as the “the easiest and clearest example” of the rise of rightwing governments worldwide. “But I see it as a global swing, a shift,” he adds.
Like the play, MacArthur sees things shifting in incremental ways in real life. “It’s like anything, it’s all incremental changes. The States have been moving pretty quickly but just those little incremental things that slip in or are taken away and can gradually over time create a horrific situation.”
In his author’s notes in the program, MacArthur uses the metaphor of a frog dropped in a pot of water to describe the situation. If you drop a frog in a pot of blatantly boiling water it’ll jump out immediately, he writes. But if you drop a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat, it may get uncomfortable, it may get disoriented, it may notice some sores on its legs and a cough that won’t go away, but it will tell itself not to panic and stay where it is. Until “his skin falls off, his eyes pop out and his brain fries.”
Initially, Ben shares a bathroom with two other residents: Ash (Allan Morgan) and Leroy (Charlie Gallant). Ash is a flamboyant 50-something-year-old gay man with an extensive collection of creams and bath products who goes crazy by the end. His attempts to look on the bright side of life–from the corn chips offered in the restaurant to the fabric with which he decorates his room–can’t withstand the creeping vapours and unexplained dead bodies piling up for the new incinerator being built outside.
As life in the recovery centre gradually shifts from a comfortable if cryptic blue haze to a gulag, Ash falls apart, while Ben embraces his new duties and sense of importance and joins the system blindly sustaining the centre.
While MacArthur’s identity as a queer artist influences the colour and perspective of his work, he notes that many of his themes are more universal.
“I’m a writer first, not necessarily a gay writer,” he says.
Still, his sexuality has always played a significant role in his artistic development. “I became sexually and artistically active during the heights of AIDS,” MacArthur writes in a 2005 edition of the theatre journal Transmissions. “As a result, my early work had a strong political agenda. I felt a pressure–a responsibility–to align myself with queer work. To identify myself as a queer artist.”
With time, MacArthur moved away from strict classifications, finding a broader definition of sexuality, individuality and art. However, he maintains some elements of overt homosexuality in all of his art. “I always manage to find room in my plays for an eighteen-year-old, attractive, toque-wearing boy of flexible sexual orientation who, more often than not, appears in some state of undress,” he notes in Transmissions.
In Recovery, Leroy is a surly 24-year-old youth from Amsterdam with a short temper and a distrust of authority. He begins to question the role of the recovery centre and whether the residents are, in fact, recovering from anything–and if the cure is worse than the disease.
At times, the play is very hard to follow and borders on the melodramatic. Were it not for the superb delivery by the actors, this piece would be an esoteric remake of 1984.
“It’s a real ensemble piece,” says Craig Hall, who directed the play. “You have to get people that click.”
And click they do. The chemistry between the cast and audience lent a genuine, almost affectionate vibe to the evening. At one point an audience member sneezed and without flinching Ben interrupted his line to say “bless you.”
For Hall, Recovery is less about politics and more about the individual’s reaction to external conditions. “There is a degree of fascism in there and the loss of individual power,” he acknowledges. “It’s also about how different individuals function in an environment, how different people thrive under a controlled regime. Some people get swept up into it and some people suffocate.”