By Janet Munsil. Directed by Rena Cohen. A Realwheels Theatre production. At the Cultch Historic Theatre on Friday, April 12. Continues until April 20
When confronted with an unexplained phenomenon, what conclusions can individuals draw, and will these speculations be enough to mend the rift caused by such an assault on the order of things? Janet Munsil’s play Act of Faith explores this quandary through one woman’s surprising change in physical ability, testing the limits of knowledge, identity politics, and the basis of friendship through her transformation.
Faith (Danielle Klaudt) is a prominent member of the paraplegic community, whose joint efforts with her best friend Jess (Emily Grace Brook) have resulted in a new accessibility centre, championed by the latter’s mother, Gloria (Tanja Dixon-Warren). With an Internet following and a nature-themed show to come, she is an articulate supporter of disability rights, raising awareness on the diverse endeavours of wheelchair users. Lately, Faith has been experiencing leg pains and recurrent dreams of a hooded figure beckoning her to walk. When she suddenly regains the use of her limbs, Faith has to re-evaluate everything.
Integral to Munsil’s dramatic investigation is the concept of identity: Faith has lived with paraplegia after falling ill shortly before her high-school graduation, and her life has adapted to this condition in the 12 years since. When alliances have been made with disability as a connective tissue, its abrupt absence incites suspicion. Characters unable to comprehend the change find themselves wrestling with the reason behind it, with Faith taking on religion as salvation and Jess viewing her friend’s prior experience as fraud. With an existing identity in crisis, the play invites audience members to contemplate people’s need to retain a sense of self, whether steeped in science or religious devotion.
Depending on one’s worldview, the work may proselytize the divine succor of the faithful, or the secular power of perseverance. Gloria is steadfast against the vagaries of life, fighting for a daughter born small, whose survival she owes to Jess’s own strength and not God’s grace. Likewise, Raff (Raugi Yu), Jess’s physiotherapist, concedes his beliefs are more spiritual than religious, framing his departure from a troubled past to be of his own making. Conversely, Faith’s belief in a higher power allows her to move past psychological darkness, and the reappearance of her wayward brother Damon (Mason Temple) signals more divinity in action.
Director Rena Cohen breaks up dramatic action by placing designer David Roberts’s domestic sets at either end of an elongated stage, and transitioning between scenes with Carolina Bergonzoni’s geometric wheelchair choreography. Klaudt is convincing as the uprooted, teetering Faith; Brook and Dixon-Warren, as mother and daughter, share a jolting lineal fierceness.
Sound designer Matthias Falvai creates zen sounds of nature and dreamscapes, while lighting designer Michael K. Hewitt grounds terrestrial and otherworldly realms with a spectrum of colours and intensities.
At its heart, Act of Faith is a story about a devout person—Faith’s beliefs can be alienating to those who don’t identify with her theology. Nonetheless, in creating an opportunity to inspect our inclination to seek out differences, Munsil touches on how it’s similarities that may ultimately unite us.