Comedian Mary Walsh returns to the stage with Dancing With Rage

Comedian Mary Walsh returns to the stage with Marg Delahunty in a tale about eyesight, adoption, global power, and Stephen Harper
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As a long-time fixture on CBC TV’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Mary Walsh loved to skewer the absurdities of Canada’s political culture—and she never lacked for opportunity. With the times turning from absurd to dangerous, however, she’s taken to serving up stronger medicine on-stage, as she will at the Firehall Arts Centre in her one-woman show Dancing With Rage.

Notably, the new production features the return of Marg Delahunty, Walsh’s guerrilla-reporter alter ego, who recently won new fans across the country for ambushing disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford outside his home. This time, though, we’ll get a closer look at the factors that made Delahunty the fearless “princess warrior” she is today.

“There are two narratives that meet, and one is the story of Marg Delahunty,” Walsh tells the Straight in a rapid-fire telephone conversation from her St. John’s, Newfoundland, home. “And Marg, when she was 16, went to Expo 67 with Our Lady of Mercy Choir and unfortunately got knocked up. And when she came home, the baby was taken from her—Marg didn’t know whether it was a boy or a girl, because she was under anesthetic when she had the baby. Her mother took the baby and gave it up for adoption, and this has been the source of some sadness in Marg’s life all this time.

“Suddenly, at the beginning of the play, Marg finds out that she’s got macular degeneration, which she believes will leave her blind, and she is determined to finally clap eyes on that baby that she lost so very long ago. And so she sets out on a quest to find this child, and instead of the standard quest, you know, where there are trolls and dragons and things like that that get in the heroine’s way, this time it’s people like phone companies and Air Canada and the banks and all that that try to stymie Marg’s quest.”

Stephen Harper factors, too. Without giving away the plot, let’s just say that his entrance occurs during what Walsh describes as “a very dark period around the middle of the play”.

“Things pick up from there immeasurably, though,” she adds. “Or Marg’s spirits do, at any rate.”

Walsh herself suffers from macular degeneration, a progressive deterioration of the eyes, so it’s tempting to read Dancing With Rage as thinly veiled autobiography. It isn’t, though.

“I mean, I do have macular degeneration, that’s true,” the actor and comedian admits. “And I did go to Our Lady of Mercy School, and I was in the choir, but Sister Mary Catherine was constantly going around saying ‘What is the problem? There is a problem in the altos.’ And I knew, of course, that I was the problem in the altos. So she finally discovered me and gave me the heave-ho. So I never actually got to go to Expo. Neither did I get knocked up, and I guess there’s little chance of that happening now.”

If there are parallels between Delahunty’s journey and Walsh’s own, they have more to do with the universal experience of illness and aging. Her own struggles with macular degeneration, Walsh says, “didn’t send me on as clear a journey, because life is never as clear as fiction. It was rather more stumbley-blumbley on my part. But, as all illnesses do, they tend to bring us back into ourselves, and when we come out again, we are shifted and changed, right?”

It’s from that perspective that Walsh has geared up to do battle with what she sees as a dangerous shift in the global balance of power. Delahunty’s corporate bugbears, she explains, are not just bent on frustrating one middle-aged woman; they’re seeking nothing less than world domination.

“It does seem to be very, very clear, doesn’t it, that we’re teetering on some kind of edge,” Walsh says. “It’s like the ’30s, when everybody decided to give up on democracy. In Newfoundland, we gave up our right to self-government, and were run by seven commissioners from Whitehall. And of course Germany gave up democracy, Italy… People made a turn against the democratic process and thought that it probably wasn’t working. And it seems like we are back there again.”

It’s alarming, she admits, to view the new corporate oligarchs as would-be fascists. But the parallels are striking, right down to the right’s demonization of environmentalists, First Nations activists, and those who advocate sharing the world’s wealth.

“As Mr. Hitler said, ‘If you’re going to lie, lie big,’ ” Walsh says, before citing Harper and his fellow ideologues as subscribers to that theory. That’s cause enough for rage—but when it comes to battling the Big Lie, she’s savvy enough to recognize that humour is always anger’s best ally. 

Dancing With Rage is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Tuesday (February 5) to February 17.

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