Playwright Arun Lakra builds tricky Sequence of his own

As an artist and doctor, he used both sides of his brain to create this award-winning scientific thriller

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      Arun Lakra is an ophthalmologist who’s always felt the need to write—so much so that he carves out days away from the operating room to work solely on his scripts for theatre and film.

      But it’s clear that Sequence, the play that’s won him prizes like the 2013 Calgary Theatre Critics Award for best new script and productions in Alberta and Toronto, worked both his methodical and creative sides equally. The structure of this intertwisting scientific thriller has been compared to the double helix of a DNA strand.

      “Every time I started the process, I was convinced it wasn’t doable,” he says of his script, speaking from his Calgary office. “There are two story lines, so I ended up writing them independently. And then I had this mad-scientist moment where I felt like either it’s going to explode or it’s going to come together.…I felt like I was using all the resources of my brain to figure out the structure of this.”

      In the play, which Realwheels Theatre is giving its local premiere, one narrative follows stem-cell-research professor Dr. Guzman, who is in a race against time to figure out the cure to her own impending blindness. She confronts a student who has gotten all the questions on a midterm wrong—almost a statistical impossibility. In the other plot, Theo has been named Time magazine’s Luckiest Man Alive for 20 years of betting successfully on the Super Bowl. But then he’s approached by a woman named Cynthia, who claims to have figured out his mathematical secret. Amid all this, Lakra plays cleverly with big questions about science and math versus faith, as well as luck, coincidence, and probability.

      “My typical joke with people is this script should come with Advil,” Lakra says. His medical training didn’t automatically mean the subject matter came easily to him: “Some of the things I knew, but a lot I had to learn about—like some of the math and scientific processes.

      “Being a doctor impacted my choice of characters and the choices of the characters,” he adds. “Delving into this fictional world also helped me empathize with the plight of patients, as well. ”

      The Vancouver production of Sequence will take it into even more complex new terrain. In the script, two people live with disabilities—the professor, who’s visually impaired, and her failing student, who uses a wheelchair. And those disabilities tie directly—and sometimes provocatively—into the show’s difficult questions about fate and coincidence. Realwheels Theatre is staging the play with a cast that integrates professional actors who live with and without disabilities. And one of them, Amy Amantea, who’s playing Dr. Guzman, is legally blind.

      Amy Amantea stars in Sequence.
      Tim Matheson

      “She had received performing-arts training when she experienced sight loss and walked away from that never thinking she would be able to act again,” explains Realwheels managing artistic director Rena Cohen in a separate phone call. “I first met her when she came to participate in Comedy on Wheels, which we produced last spring, and she blew everyone away.

      “Her role is so pivotal and in many ways is the heart of the play,” she adds. “She also has the most stage business, often around small stage props.”

      Cohen stresses Realwheels does not worry about matching disabilities exactly to characters. In fact, Amantea has a different form of vision loss than her character.

      “There’s such a range of disability anyway,” Cohen says. “Sixteen percent of Canadians identify as living with disabilities, but we do not see that demographic on stages. We at Realwheels are wanting to address that gap. And it’s not just about the shows we’re producing, but creating opportunities for people in the performing arts.

      “When I read plays like this that are exciting for so many other issues, and there are characters who happen to live with a disability, I get excited. The play seems made for us.”

      Lakra, too, is looking forward to the first production of his play to integrate people with disabilities. “I tried to present as balanced a philosophy as I could, but there are some tricky things said about disability here,” he says. “And the actor with the vision disability: it adds a whole level of authenticity—it adds to the weight of what is being shown. And her role is exceedingly complex and demanding.”

      Besides the opening here, a lot has been happening in the doctor’s writing career, including the debut of a short film at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival last fall and work on another film script and play. But the multitasker is characteristically modest about his success in both the medical and the theatrical fields.

      “I have largely by accident stumbled on this existence, which is weird,” he says with a laugh. “I almost feel like a fraud as a playwright.”

      Realwheels Theatre presents Sequence at Presentation House Theatre from Thursday (March 15) to March 24.