In its simplest, non-denominational form, communion denotes the act of sharing. When we move from lower case communion to upper case forms of religious passion and ritual, the stakes tend to heighten. We may find ourselves caught in a web of fervent religiosity that can make those of us who waver between atheism and agnosticism cringe at the sight of badly dressed bible-thumping zealots. Daniel MacIvor’s most recent play, currently running at the Tarragon Theatre, takes Communion as its title. It plays passionately with the highs and lows of different forms of religious faith and non-partisan spirituality through three women who are rapidly losing, and gaining, a sense of what they truly believe in.
Set within the claustrophobic confines of a therapist’s office and a hotel room, this spare, powerful script comes across as an extended episode of the HBO hit In Treatment. As the subtly Sapphic Carolyn, Sarah Dodd enacts the role of slightly sullen, non-committal therapist with great reserve and nuance that subtly explodes in later scenes. Caroline Gillis, as Leda, plays manically, comically and explosively with the pivotal role of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with some of the great obstacles set before her as a mother and a substance abuser. MacIvor’s direction of his own work reveals a highly skilled eye for physicality and blocking as the first few moments of the piece unfold in a kind of toned-down slapstick tableau. Slow, painstaking physical movement and minimalist dialogue between two women on the edges of their tightly upholstered, matching armless chairs creates intense comic anxiety and dramatic tension. Rounding out the cast with an incredibly layered performance that moves from evangelical prowess to stoic unravelling is Athena Lamarre’s Ann, Leda’s beleaguered daughter.
Lamarre, a newcomer to Tarragon, is a revelation of biblical proportions as she takes command of the stage and her character with a youthful cross between Jodie Foster and Colleen Dewhurst — or, for a less gender-specific, Americanized comparison, a theatrical mélange of Clare Coulter, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Brent Carver. Her somewhat butch/femme presence sways back and forth between forms of tender femininity and masculinized conviction, which is gripping at the outset and never falters throughout her transformation as a very simply drawn yet complex character. Ultimately, she becomes the perfect foil for the less-controlled fates of her mother and the lesbian therapist.
Communion is a very moving reminder that what the world needs now is communal understanding and acceptance of diverse belief systems. Coincidentally enough, on the morning of the world premiere of MacIvor’s play, I received an email containing hate speech. I had ignored previous messages from the same source as mild religious propaganda. This one claimed that the untimely death of celebrities such as John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe — among others — were directly connected to the fact that they “mocked” Jesus Christ during their lifetimes. The message encouraged recipients to send the email on to eight friends. I responded by politely asking to be taken off the email list, and then I filed it away for future amusement. The sender responded later in the day by stating, “As you wish,” and signing off with “Your Brother in Christ.” I didn’t respond to this infuriating fraternal endearment for fear I might shed my calm façade and tell him what I really think. It might be best to partake in a less vitriolic act of communion and tell him to go to MacIvor’s play to work out his penchant for disturbing dogma purporting to be the word of God.
MacIvor’s Communion is a powerful and tender way of telling evangelicals to back off, and it’s a breath of fresh air in a world increasingly divided along political and spiritual lines, where hatred and violence are too often the result. Beautifully written and superbly acted, this is a feel-good play about how bad we are feeling — a simple and timely parable and testament to the strength of individual belief that embraces collective spirituality, as opposed to over-organized religious fervour that denies the human right to choose one’s form of spiritual ejaculation.