By David Gow. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Cave Canem production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, April 5. Continues until April 28
With divisive politics and fringe ideologies dominating the public’s consciousness of late, David Gow’s Cherry Docs can seem like a premise ripped straight from today’s news headlines, thanks to its plot, which is structured around a hate crime and its consequences. The fact that the play was written over 20 years ago dulls none of its incendiary actions; instead, it highlights its urgency and wisdom in a current climate of social unease.
Unfolding almost entirely in the confines of a jail interview room, Cherry Docs pits the devout Danny Dunkelman (John Voth), a Jewish legal-aid lawyer, against Mike Downey (Kenton Klassen), a neo-Nazi skinhead.
Mike has been held for a racially motivated attack, and his cherry-coloured Doc Martens boots form part of a skinhead’s “recognizable uniform”, which were used to inflict grave injuries on an innocent man.
Assigned to his case, Danny must reconcile their differences if they are to have any chance in court.
Given the fundamental polarity of the two characters’ belief systems, drama is inherent in the high-stakes environment. Danny’s dedication to his profession comes into sharp contrast with his disdain for Mike’s dogma, just as Mike’s brusque desire for the death of Jews takes second priority to his legal defence. Although Gow takes great care to sew common threads in both men, like their need to restrain a mutual repulsion, logically the play does take some liberties with how that comes to pass.
An exchange reveals that Danny has a choice not to represent Mike, but still takes him on, due to a hunch his act was not premeditated. Considering that he struggles to stay impartial from the outset, it may seem at odds with professional judgment to stay. Likewise, Mike’s confidence in a disinterested defense from Danny, solely out of an assessment that he’s a liberal thinker, can strike an incongruous tone with the personalities on display, where the two joust verbally and nearly come to blows. Nonetheless, once engaged, the characters’ intransigence soften through a series of revelations, in the form of impact statements and concurrent incidents.
Director Richard Wolfe opens up a tight stage by varying spatial perceptions, through lighting that reflects introspection and gestures that address an audience, as though in an imagined courtroom.
As Danny, Voth has a commanding presence, with clear projection and a stately gait. However, his character’s temperament is muted as a result, where an edgier delivery could have wrung out deeper distress.
Klassen plays a frenetic Mike, whose histrionics suggest mental disarray.
Phil Miguel’s lighting cocoons the leads in isolating spotlights that serve as confessional spheres; sound designer Matthew MacDonald-Bain concocts drum beats and heartbeats alike to flavour transitions and tense thoughts. Wooden chairs, a table, and a two-toned wall make up Sandy Margaret’s minimalist set, while Julie Edgeley’s costumes divide status, a vest and overcoat in tandem with a prison jumpsuit.
Cherry Docs has proven to be a resilient play that taps into conflicts that are understandable without historical precedents, but that are deeply informed by them.