Indian Arm an intense theatrical experience

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      By Hiro Kanagawa. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Rumble Theatre production. At Studio 16 on Friday, April 10. Continues until April 18

      In Indian Arm, actor Jennifer Copping pretty much skins herself alive. Her performance is one of the most astonishing of the season.

      To appreciate her work, it helps to let go of the notion that liking a character is the same thing as admiring an actor. Especially in the first half of Indian Arm, Copping’s character, Rita, is such a bag that you just want to slap her. Rita’s behaviour doesn’t always make sense at first, but the question to ask is, “Does it make sense to Copping?”—and the actor is so committed, so in the moment, that there is absolutely no doubt that it does.

      Indian Arm is Vancouver playwright Hiro Kanagawa’s take on Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. This time around, the glacial fjord of its setting is Canadian rather than Norwegian, and we’re at the beginning of the 21st century instead of the end of the 19th.

      Rita is hanging out in her deceased dad’s cabin, which sits on land leased from the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation. Still grieving her father’s death, Rita is terrified that the Tsleil-Waututh are going to reclaim the property. She and her husband, Alfred, have an adopted, brain-damaged, 15-year-old native son named Wolfie, whom Rita bosses around mercilessly. And that’s nothing compared to the way she treats her husband. When she demands sex, she’s got the attitude of somebody carrying a machine gun.

      But as the plot unfolds and the play’s themes emerge, Rita’s attitude finds a context. She and her husband share a trauma in which sex became associated with tragedy. And no one is completely innocent. Alfred can be cruel. Janice, the older Tsleil-Waututh woman who comes to visit, also carries shame.

      For me, Indian Arm is about the dialectic between selfishness and sharing, between narcissism and empathy. And it’s about taking responsibility for how you negotiate that conversation. Remember that the conceptual hinge is sex, in which selfish appetite can both coexist and battle with communion.

      Without giving too much away, the characters in Indian Arm make the folks from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like amateurs. Sometimes actors yell to indicate intensity, but the fury that Copping summons for Rita seems to come from the centre of the Earth. It’s alive and modulated. Gerry Mackay, who plays Alfred, also goes the emotional distance—and ends up looking like he’s been dragged there behind a truck.

      Richard Russ finds a persuasive combination of innocence and frustrated intelligence in Wolfie. In the play’s final moments, he made me weep. At first, Caitlin McFarlane was working a bit too hard as Rita’s ditzy half-sister, Asta, but she gained strength and simplicity as the play’s stakes ratcheted up. Unfortunately, Gloria May Eshkibok was skating around on her lines the night I attended, but she did bring warmth and gravitas to the stage.

      With its bare tree trunks and limited palette, Drew Facey’s production design is elemental and evocative. Conor Moore’s lighting highlights the dreamlike nature of the script and James Coomber’s sound is rewardingly subtle. Stephen Drover is the director who brought all of this together.

      And, of course, Kanagawa is the guy who created the platform upon which it’s been built. His script is a major accomplishment. It’s not perfect—exchanges could be tighter, Janice’s Act 2 monologue is too long, and themes needn’t be spelled out so deliberately—but Kanagawa has created a vibrant framework for an intense theatrical experience.

      Stylistically, he has taken the enormous emotions of early naturalism, which was still indebted to melodrama, and made them sing in the 21st century.