George F. Walker double bill explores poverty and mental illness at the Assembly Theatre

George F. Walker double bill explores poverty and mental illness at the Assembly Theatre
Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Catherine Fitch and Lesley Robertson in George F. Walker’s Her Inside Life.  (JOHN GUNDY)

Her Inside Life

By George F. Walker, directed by Wes Berger (Kill the Poor) and Andrea Wasserman (Her Inside Life), produced by Leroy Street Theatre (Kill) and LowRise Productions (Inside). Until Nov. 18 at the Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen St. W.

“What the hell is wrong with you people?”

It’s the archetypal question in a George F. Walker play, signalling characters on the edge and comic incredulity. In this tight one-act play, the cop Annie (Chandra Galasso) asks it of Lacey (Anne van Leeuwen), who’s resisting making false claims about a bad traffic accident because she still has principles.

This situation involves a classic reversal of expectation that deftly allows Walker to land his critical point: that folks who live marginally, as do Lacey and her boyfriend Jake (Craig Henderson) can’t be reduced to “you people” — they are humans with ethics and circumstances and, hopefully, futures.

Van Leeuwen gives a terrific performance as the frayed but steely central character and Henderson is appropriately exasperating as her loving, dopey beau.

While aspects of his character feel like a farcical contrivance, Ron Lea brings great zest to his portrayal of Harry, the handyman with an unlikely extra skill set. Galasso initially plays the cop tropes heavy but grows into her performance as Annie reveals a more sensitive side. Al Bernstein has less nuance to play as the comic/menacing baddie Mr. David but serves up the part with aplomb.

This being his fifth Walker world premiere, director Wes Berger knows how to deliver the goods: the pace is snappy, the blackouts quick (lighting by Chin Palipane) and the tone unsentimental. Chris Bretecher’s living-room set, shared between both plays, is appropriately dishevelled.

Walker’s approach is doubtless formulaic but when it is delivered with heart and style as is this one, his plays are a reminder that formulas work.

Karen Fricker

The other half of Walker’s double bill, Her Inside Life, opens in a ruckus of fire alarms and sirens, and Violet (Catherine Fitch) is sitting on her couch trying to block out the noise.

As a woman living with a mental condition that’s somewhere between extreme bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, this is a moment of internal and external chaos that will become familiar to us by the end of the play’s 75 minutes.

The “inside life” in the title not only refers to the mental pain Violet suffers, but her agoraphobic lifestyle: she refuses to leave after committing a violent crime, and she’s still under heavy surveillance by her social worker Cathy (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) and daughter Maddy (Lesley Robertson).

Considering the gravity of her crime, Fitch gives Violet a devilish whimsy, an impressive intellect and a virtuous streak that gets us on her side, even as she invites one of her victims (Tony Munch) into this inside life of hers.

In a typically farcical plot that Walker has enjoyed as of late, Violet acts out to regain a fraction of the agency she used to feel — before an abusive marriage, a mental break and time spent in the Canadian federal correction system — and to test if her voices are paranoia, as diagnosed, or deep-rooted intuition.

Fitch’s performance is a crafty one and Walker is sympathetic as always to his characters, but Violet’s journey gets lost in the hijinks. So, too, do the play’s other women with underdeveloped stories.

It closes on a sentimental note that paints a broad stroke of stress and trauma and mental illness across the three of them without exploring many of the particulars of Cathy’s and Maddy’s own inside lives.
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