Reviews: The Birth of Freedom
Vancouver Courier
June 7, 2002

Real Life Inspires Searing Freedom

by Jo Ledingham

Before passing any more legislation affecting the lives of the disabled, Liberal MLAs should be marched down to Performance Works. For over a decade playwright Andy Thompson has worked with the developmentally disabled and in The Birth of Freedom he tells it like it is.

In 1996, in our own neck of the woods, the doors closed on Woodlands, a care facility for the "behaviourally challenged" and mentally ill. Many patients were moved into group homes that worked to give residents a feeling of family and a sense of dignity. Now, government restructuring in the health care sector once again puts these people at risk: "congregate care" scenarios are being put forward again. "More bang for our bucks" means "same old" for people like Andy Thompson's characters Josie, Ken and Robbie.

Directed by Alex Ferguson for The Virtual Stage Co-op, The Birth of Freedom is shockingly realistic. Struggling to make ends meet at their East Vancouver group home, health care workers Isabelle and Bernard are close to their wits' end. Bernard has been working 24 hours a day for a couple of weeks due to staffing problems. The place is dingy and cuisine is spelled Kraft Dinner. Josie, sterilized years ago because of her mental disability, goes on and on about wanting "a bey-bey." Autistic Ken works incessantly on his "career" by singing along with his karaoke tapes. And Robbie clutches at anyone and everyone's genitals whenever he can. Thwarted, he goes wild and must be restrained in his "calmdown room." What they don't need is an inspector. And, of course, that's what they get.

What makes this production so exceptional-apart from its brutal honesty-are the performances. Each of these characters is fully dimensional-and absolutely riveting. Colleen Wheeler's Josie repeatedly taps one wrist against the opposite fist and she makes a curious little gesture with her thumb and index finger held up near her eyes. She takes the stairs one at a time like a toddler learning to climb stairs. Her pronunciation is strange: "Bey-bey" is baby, "luvah" is lover (and Josie, we learn loves Bernard in an "inappropriate" fashion.)

It'll tear your heart out to hear Andrew Olewine, as Ken, sing "Days of Wine and Roses." In a sweetly cracked but true voice, Ken sings of experiences of which he can only dream. Olewine brings such sweetness (and there's just no other word for it) to this character, that everything from his splayed fingers to his shuffling, pigeon-toed gait is completely endearing. Although Ken's brain is damaged, his heart is huge.

Dion Johnstone, generally featured in commanding, regal roles or sinister villainous parts, is Robbie. Like Olewine and Wheeler, Johnstone gets right under his character's skin-but it's harder to watch. Johnstone rocks back and forth, his hands flap like crazy, caged birds and when his character loses control, he beats his head with both hands and goes on a rampage. Banished to his padded room and observed by Bernard and Isabelle (and the audience) on closed circuit TV, he thrashes about alone unless he starts banging his head on the floor, which immediately brings Bernard down to wrestle him gently into a state of calm.

In a ghoulish sort of way, these three performers keep you in their thrall through two acts. It's not only their characters' idiosyncratic behaviour but also their brief moments of clarity-bordering on brilliance-that hold you. You can count on straightforward Josie asking the big question: what is freedom?

In the midst of this bedlam are Isabelle and Bernard who go way beyond caregiving. They love Josie, Ken and Robbie and will do almost anything to keep them out of "River Ridge," the institution from which the trio was rescued. Naomi Snieckus is practical, positive-thinking Isabelle who just tries to keep it all working. Scott Bellis is Bernard, ground down by the system and beset with medical problems of his own: he's an epileptic who is medicated to keep his seizures under control. Bernard makes some grievous errors in judgment but Bellis plays the character so sympathetically (and the playwright takes such care to set the situation up), it's impossible to condemn him completely.

There are very funny moments spread over two acts but eventually The Birth of Freedom goes dark. On the eve of our provincial government pushing through a slew of important bills before shutting down until October, The Birth of Freedom should be required viewing for all B.C. Liberals.