Disability, the right to die, and raw sexuality: these are just some of the extremely loaded issues Canadian playwright Brad Fraser plies in unflinching detail in Kill Me Now.
And just as Fraser is no stranger to controversy, Vancouver’s Touchstone Theatre is no stranger to Fraser. For 30 years, the company has boldly tackled the well-known theatre artist’s work, from Wolf Boy in 1982 to Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love in 1991 and True Love Lies in 2011. Director Roy Surette, who himself has circled back to helm the company after a two-decade absence, liked the idea of looping back to Fraser.
“One of my earliest plays when I came here was seeing Touchstone and [director] John Cooper’s wonderful production of Wolf Boy. That was what made me excited about working here,” recalls Surette, who went on to lead Touchstone from 1985 to 1997. So he didn’t hesitate to pick up a copy of Fraser’s Kill Me Now at a book sale in Montreal a few years ago, when Surette was there as artistic director of Centaur Theatre. “I didn’t know much about it. I knew he was usually provocative and sensational, but usually pretty interesting. I found characters here that were a little older, a little wiser. And I found it kind of devastating.”
Kill Me Now centres on a single father, Jake, struggling to raise Joey, his 17-year-old son, who lives with a severe physical disability that’s complicating his sexual awakening. Jake’s sudden spinal condition throws his caretaking duties into crisis, forcing the misfits who surround them (including Joey’s mentally challenged buddy Rowdy and Jake’s mistress Robyn) to pull together in support. Fraser couches it all in his distinct mix of taboo humour and heartfelt compassion.
“It deals with lots of different issues that are delicate in lots of different ways, and dramatically there are some twists,” Surette says. “This is different people being asked to step up and help people in need—people who are isolated and forced to become a tight family.”
Among the challenges of the play is casting the character of the son. During Kill Me Now’s widely praised production at London’s Park Theatre, some critics complained about the use of a person who was not living with a disability in the role. (In interviews, Fraser has hinted that the play, which debuted in Edmonton five years ago, was driven by his own experiences of having a nephew with a severe disability and by his own suffering with a spinal condition.) For his part, Surette knew immediately upon reading the work that he would want to cast it with someone who lived with the same challenges.
“It was hard to know if that could happen. The play is written very filmically in 25 scenes with quick changes—scenes in bathrooms and kitchens and outside in the park. And quick changes can be hard when you’re operating in a wheelchair,” Surette explains. “I was being cautious. Then I very happily found Adam Grant Warren,” he says of the local actor who’s made an impression in plays like RealWheels Theatre’s Creeps and his own searingly honest account of getting trapped with his wheelchair in a U.K. station in Last Train In at last year’s rEvolver Festival. “He’s older than the character, but he’s boyish. He lives with cerebral palsy, though to a much lesser degree than the character.”
With equally strong castmates—Bob Frazer plays the father, and Luisa Jojic is Joey’s aunt, Corina Akeson is Jake’s secret lover, and Braiden Houle is Rowdy—Warren has brought important insight to the rehearsal process, Surette says.
“In the course of the play, the father and son’s relationship is really intense,” Surette says, explaining that in some ways Jake overprotects Joey. “Adam talked about that issue, how it is for a person living with disability to be coddled. He wasn’t. He was given his independence early on, but he certainly has experience to tell us about people in different situations.”
Surette has spent long hours with the cast in readings, working through the relationships in this harrowingly intimate play. He admits it’s been emotionally intense, but because of Fraser’s gift for black comedy, there’s been laughter too.
It’s brought Surette to think that Fraser, who is coming to town for the opening, has penned his most powerful work with Kill Me Now.
“There is humour laced through the whole thing, and that’s where the artistry of the play kind of sneaks up on you,” he explains. “I think what makes the play so positive and moving is it’s about people stepping up to bring their love into a situation that is devastating. I feel the bigness of the heart of this pounds louder in this play.”
Touchstone Theatre presents Kill Me Now at the Firehall Arts Centre from Saturday (October 13) to October 27.