Much of the Canadian bill of fare at the Blyth Festival is anchored in the interests and sensibilities of its mostly rural audience. Such plays can make the rounds of small town theatres and summer stock with great success. There are occasionally, however, Blyth originals that can go the distance and be performed in the big cities, where taste is supposedly more sophisticated. Such a vehicle is In the Wake of Wettlaufer by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt. In fact, I put it in the same league as Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land (1981) and Beverly Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott (2008), two towering hits with national legs that both debuted at Blyth.
In the annals of Canadian crime stories, the 2017 Elizabeth Wettlaufer case is notorious. Serial killer Wettlaufer, a registered nurse, murdered elderly residents of nursing homes where she worked, and which were very near Blyth, by injecting them with insulin. The subsequent public inquiry into the safety and security of long-term care facilities exposed a shocking array of weaknesses in the system. The report by Justice Eileen E. Gillese, commissioner of the inquiry, clearly pointed out that long-term care, which is such a necessary part of an ageing society, is broken.
What makes In the Wake of Wettlaufer a great play is the approach that the playwrights chose in dealing with the subject matter. They have not penned a true crime drama. Wettlaufer does not appear as a character. Rather, they concentrate on a dysfunctional family with a father (Robert King) who has dementia, and how his children deal with this problem that affects so many Canadian households. The key words are “in the wake”. While the first act details the tortuous dynamics between the children as they struggle with the crisis of their father’s declining health and ultimate death, the second act is about how they react to the news of Wettlaufer’s murder spree. Frank, their father, was a resident in a nursing home where Wettlaufer worked. Could he have been a victim?
McIntosh and Garratt, with the latter also directing, have created a fascinating and troubled group of siblings. Mary (Jane Spidell) is a childless lawyer who lives in Victoria, and has deliberately estranged herself from her family. Brenda (Caroline Gillis) is a nurse in the military based in Halifax, who is suffering from PTSD after tours to Afghanistan. The lone brother John (Nathan Howe) is an IT guy whose firm is in Kitchener, but who travels a great deal. This leaves Lynn (Rachel Jones), a single working mother with two children, who still lives in the small town where they grew up. It falls to her to be the front line in looking after their father. Unfortunately, Lynn has also become obsessive about the care of Frank, which puts her at odds with her sisters and brother.
By a careful interlocking of scenes and monologues, the playwrights slowly construct the relationships between the children themselves, and between them and their father. We learn about the past and the present by hearing their intimate revelations. In fact, we know much more about the family dynamics than they do. For example, Frank, who had been a Canadian peacekeeper, had tried to make the sensitive John into a man’s man, while, in reality, it was Brenda who was into sports and action and never got the attention. McIntosh and Garratt also integrate actual TV and radio reports into the play, as well as sound bite testimony from the public inquiry, and the voice of Justice Gillese herself. This dose of reality is a chilling example of life meeting art. As for the family, the bitter fight over whether they should put their father into a home, and then learning of the murders that took place in that very home, has a devastating impact on the siblings.
Director Garratt’s minimal set is very evocative. The stage contains what look like a series of carved wooden columns, giving the impression of a stately, old-fashioned courtroom, or a venerable law office. Chairs and tables are brought in by the cast as needed, but these oak pillars dominate the space, like a weight pressing in. Rebecca Picherack’s discreet lighting gives the stage a sombre patina, while Lyon Smith’s sound design perfectly integrates the real with the imagined.
Everything about this production is a class act. There is not a weak link in the cast, with the sisters being an intriguing study in contrasts – the pragmatic Mary, the needy Brenda, and the martyr Lynn. Spidell, Gillis and Jones render marvellous portraits of these complicated women. I would like particularly to single out Howe who is an extremely gifted actor with a brilliant career ahead of him. His intense portrait of John is raw emotion writ large, and Howe eats up the stage with his truth. The veteran King has the greatest arc, and he plays it beautifully, from a sharp-edge senior citizen to a broken husk of a man. Garratt has directed his cast with economy, concentrating on how the actors relate to each other. The tension is palpable, just as the characters are absolutely believable.
In the Wake of Wettlaufer has stirred up controversy, with one of the victim’s children even picketing the theatre. But as well as being a riveting drama in its own right, the larger questions that the play raises are very important ones. The microcosm of this one family’s trauma stands for the breakdown of the long-term care system as a whole. At the performance I attended, you could hear a pin drop. I’ve rarely heard an audience be so quiet, and I’m sure that every single person in the theatre was relating to what was happening on stage in some way or another. In the Wake of Wettlaufer is a disturbing story that, sadly, belongs to us all.
Blyth Festival, In the Wake of Wettlaufer by Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt, directed by Gil Garratt, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Aug. 7 to Sept. 6, 2019.