By Pamela Mala Sinha. Directed by Roy Surette. A Touchstone Theatre production, presented by Ruby Slippers Theatre and Diwali in B.C. at the Firehall Arts Centre on October 19. Continues until October 29
This line sums up the delicate balance between tragedy and humour in Happy Place: “When you laugh here, no one thinks you’re feeling better.”
“Here” is an inpatient facility for women who have attempted suicide, which makes playwright Pamela Mala Sinha’s title deeply ironic. New arrival Samira was brutally assaulted five years earlier; her assailant was never caught, but she’s starting to recover memories that may provide a lead in the case. Her pursuit of the details, and the justice they might lead to, are the play’s through-line, but the script’s heart is its depiction of a community forged from desperate circumstances—a community that offers love, maybe even healing.
The other residents are Mildred, a foul-mouthed senior; Celine, a mother whose memories of her own abuse have been stirred up by a family crisis; the wealthy Rosemary; the ever-upbeat Joyce; and the deeply unstable Nina—all supervised by their therapist, Louise.
For all its darkness—and there is plenty—Sinha’s script bubbles with warmth and bleak humour. As supplies are handed out for an art-therapy collage project, Mildred mimes slashing her throat with a pair of plastic children’s scissors. Several minutes later, after struggling to cut pictures out of a magazine, she finally explodes: “These goddamn scissors make me want to kill myself!”
The comedic power of that moment owes a great deal to the skill of Nicola Cavendish, one of seven jewels in director Roy Surette’s casting crown. Like Cavendish’s Mildred, Colleen Wheeler’s Rosemary, Diane Brown’s Joyce, Sereana Malani’s Celine and Laara Sadiq’s Nina are all studies in containment and release. Donna Yamamoto’s natural warmth makes Louise a grounding presence, and Adele Noronha gives Samira both vulnerability—the quick, shy smile as she reads aloud from her journal, for example—and fierce determination. There’s a lot of intense emotion in this play, and not one note of it rings false.
The production looks fantastic, too. Pam Johnson’s set is a stunner: she uses minimal furnishings to create the separate spaces of patient rooms, dining hall, kitchen, and lounge, linking everything with metallic door frames that are both handsome and institutional. Not only does the set’s spaciousness provide emotional breathing room, but behind it all hangs a large, delicate globe suggesting a blossom—evoking, perhaps, the elusive wholeness the women are seeking. The set is enhanced by Adrian Muir’s delicate lighting; in one memorable scene, we see the other patients sleeping, each bathed in a gentle pool of light, while Samira talks with Louise. Christine Reimer’s costumes speak volumes about characters who can’t always easily share much about themselves. And Dorothy Dittrich’s original music underscores the emotions without ever being intrusive.
Happy Place goes to places that are far from happy, but in this beautifully realized production, it does so with grace, generosity, a huge heart, and ultimately, hope. You should see it.