Sitting in the Arts Club's Backstage Lounge, Morris Panych doesn't look conflicted, nor does it seem he should be. Panych is enjoying lunch--a grilled-chicken salad--as he takes a break from directing his newest play, The Dishwashers, which premieres at the Arts Club's Granville Island Stage on Wednesday (February 23) and runs till March 12. The guy has won two Governor General's awards (for The Ends of the Earth in 1994 and Girl in the Goldfish Bowl in 2004); he married his long-time partner, set designer Ken MacDonald, last year; and their combined incomes are good enough that they own houses in both Toronto and Vancouver. Panych has a restless, existential view of the world, however, and in The Dishwashers he wrestles with the conflict between acceptance of one's lot and the urge to change it.
As he describes the content, it becomes clear that politics and philosophy overlap in the play. The story is about a young guy named Emmett (actor Ted Cole), a high roller who loses his dough and comes to work as a dishwasher in the basement of an exclusive restaurant where he was once fond of dining. There, in the bowels of the building, he meets Dressler (Stephen E. Miller), the head dishwasher, who believes in the dignity of labour, and Moss (Shawn Macdonald), a 100-year-old employee who's dying of cancer and looks like an insect.
"It's kind of an homage to work, a little bit of a thing about my father," Panych begins. "Because my father worked very hard all his life in a really shitty job, but he never thought it was a shitty job. He was a machinist. His work was very mundane, but he found a way to do it, and I always really admired that. There was something beautifully integrated about the way he went about his life."
Expanding on the content, Panych continues: "It gets fairly political, inasmuch as I ever get political." Clearly, the play raises issues of class. "Emmett's attitude towards the other two guys is really condescending," the playwright explains. "He's always trying to operate his way out of there somehow because he feels he's entitled to more. But he has no talent. He has no real skill. He doesn't deserve better or worse than anybody else."
Asked if all of the characters aren't deserving of better treatment than their dire working conditions indicate they get, Panych replies: "Dressler's argument--and I think it's a really neat one--is 'What if we're not?' In the midst of a political argument about forming a union, Emmett says, 'We deserve better.' And Dressler says, 'What if we can't get it? What if we don't get it? What happens to our lives? How do we shape our lives around that reality?' "
This discussion raises questions about the 52-year-old author's politics. He says they have shifted since his youth: he used to position himself further to the left, but now he believes in what he calls "good, healthy capitalism".
Ultimately, though, The Dishwashers isn't about labour relations; in this text, Panych uses work as a philosophical metaphor. The restaurant's underground chamber is a kind of existential hell. "I really believe strongly in exploring the idea of human entrapment," Panych says. "Our power and our existence and our influence are limited. I'm in a relationship that's narrow and confined. I'm in a business that's narrow and confined. In a way, the dish pit is a perfect kind of metaphor; you could be lost there or you could be found. This horrible entrapment exists, and within that you have to find the meaning of what you are."
Panych sees what he describes as Zen and fascist faces to the idea of acceptance: "I can't really say, 'Work makes you free.' Because Nazis said it--outside Auschwitz. I'm not suggesting that anybody should keep their job if it's a shitty job. The metaphor's bigger than that. It's really about 'Accept your life, man. Work within it.' It doesn't mean you can't make changes. It doesn't mean you can't be politically active. But it does mean that at some profound level you have to come to terms with your own existence."
As the contradictions and paradoxes pile up--and the chicken salad vanishes--it becomes clear that Panych is more conflicted than he at first appeared. He believes that his discomfort fuels his art: "My characters are a conglomeration of my confusion." And he's not out to provide answers in The Dishwashers: "It's just a series of images and questions, really." In the end, the best that he hopes for this new play is that people come out of it knowing that they are not alone as they struggle to make sense of life--and labour.