Junior has been beaten up. He’s lying on the kitchen floor of his mother-in-law Nora’s rundown house in a bad urban neighborhood, bleeding. As Junior’s wife Gail shouts for 911 to “Hurry, Dammit!”, Nora gives Junior a command: “Look at yourself. You’re on the floor. We need you off the floor.” To motivate Junior, Nora gives his infant daughter a pinch. The child cries. “She’s crying because she wants you to get up,” Nora informs the prostrate Junior. “She’s saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy please get up. Daddy, please, please don’t die on that floor!'” Gail protests for mercy, but Nora is relentless. “The floor is for dying,” Nora pronounces. “You have to avoid that floor. Defeat that floor. Rise above that floor! Get up!”
Thus begins George F. Walker’s Escape from Happiness, perhaps the ultimate Walker stew of dire circumstances, black humor, violence, emotional precariousness and social indictment. The play is being co-produced by Baltimore’s Center Stage (where it ran through March 14) and Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. (where it is currently on the boards through April 17). One of Canada’s leading playwrights and an increasing presence on the American scene, Walker has been describing the efforts of beaten people to overcome the gravitational pull of society’s floor for more than 20 years. He’s acquired plenty of fans during the period, including Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, who is in charge of the Baltimore–New Haven production, and Jerry Whiddon, artistic director of the nearby Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., which will present Walker’s first “East End” play, 1984’s Criminals in Love, May 26-June 20. (It will be Round House’s fourth Walker play in eight years. “We do Walker more than any other playwright,” Whiddon says proudly.)
If Walker is not exactly underrepresented on American stages, he nevertheless seems to be imperfectly understood on many of them. Nothing Sacred, his freewheeling adaptation of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, played six U.S. regional theatres in 1988-89; a 1989 L.A. Times article chronicled the wildly disparate responses to the work from Seattle to Hartford.
Are you manic enough?
Critics sometimes have been blinded by Walker’s outrageous humor, paying too little attention to his plays’ serious themes (urban decay, domestic violence, patriarchy and feminism, the pressure of poverty, the role and limits of police authority, to skim Escape’s landscape). But repeated phrases like “cartoon nature of the work,” “caricatural nature of the play,” “dangerously close to whimsy” and “comic-book antics” suggest that too often someone is missing the fierce intelligence and community conscience of the writer who, according to Toronto-based theatre critic Robert Wallace, “is synonymous with Canadian theatre. He has matured alongside Canadian theatre, and now he is representing it internationally.”
Irene Lewis acknowledges the trap in Walker’s plays. “I think Escape could easily be cartoonish,” she says. “But I don’t see it that way on any level.” Casting is critical, Lewis feels, because Walker’s style makes rigorous performing demands: “Are you manic enough?” she asks the hypothetical actor taking on a Walker character. “Do you have confidence enough in a style of playing that might appear to be crazy, but that’s real?”
Escape from Happiness, the fifth play set in the East End of his native Toronto, revisits many of the series’ characters and concerns. The plot is driven by the efforts of police partners Dian and Mike, a frighteningly odd couple, to discover who beat up Junior, and why. Meantime, Junior’s in-laws try to cope with the discovery of two large bags of drugs in the basement (which gets Nora arrested), as well as with the unexplained reappearance of Junior’s father-in-law Tom, an ex-cop who abandoned the family 10 years earlier. (Tom’s history of domestic violence, culminating in his trying to torch the house, was recounted in 1986’s Better Living.)
Anger and fatalism
As events take startling turns, the family looks to no-nonsense lawyer Elizabeth, the oldest daughter, to take charge. She does so–violently. But the family’s misfortunes deepen as the play moves on (solving Junior’s beating is the easy part). They’re victimized from without by being economically trapped in a neighborhood where crime statistics are “appalling,” and by a visionary but demented police methodology; they’re victimized from within by anger and fatalism.
“Escape from Happiness operates on a desperate threshold,” Lewis says. “Things have to happen right now. I find Walker a dangerous playwright in the sense that the emotional relationships are almost incendiary.” Much of the intensity is attributable to Walker’s muscular, purposeful language. “George said there is no line in the play that is purely conversation,” Lewis reports. “Now, that’s a big statement. The characters say what they mean. There’s no subtext, there’s nothing hidden.”