Home / Entertainment / Visually arresting and emotionally rich, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ is boldly realized for the stage

Visually arresting and emotionally rich, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ is boldly realized for the stage

Lucien Duncan-Reid, Brandon Michael Arrington, Ashley Wright, and Alexis Gordon star in ‘Room,’ playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until May 8.


(3 stars out of 4)

Written by Emma Donoghue. Songs by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph. Directed by Cora Bissett. Until May 8, 2022, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., mirvish.com and 1-800-461-3333.

A mother. Her son. Their unassailable bond.

That’s the heart of “Room,” Emma Donoghue’s harrowing stage adaptation of her acclaimed novel that is boldly brought to life in director Cora Bissett’s visually arresting production.

It follows a young woman, simply known as Ma (Stratford Festival stalwart Alexis Gordon), who is abducted as a teen and held captive in a dilapidated garden shed for seven years. She shares that space — where she is raped, beaten and abused by her kidnapper — with her son Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid on opening night, who alternates with Levi Dombokah), who is about to turn five. With no knowledge of what lies beyond those cork-cladded walls, the room is his world — its inanimate contents are his friends.

Ma’s love for her son is achingly clear. She conjures a mythical story to explain his seemingly inexplicable life. And each evening, when their captor enters their quarters, she conceals Jack in a wardrobe, where its broad wooden slats hide the painful truths of their existence. She, alone, carries the trauma, the pain, the burden.

The emotional resonance of their relationship — its joys, heartbreaks and the unwavering strength that they pull from each others’ being — is what makes “Room” soar.

Like the novel, the theatrical adaptation is primarily told from Jack’s perspective. We see his world through his eyes. Andrzej Goulding’s stunning projection design animates Jack’s crayon drawings and breathes life into his inanimate friends. These visual representations of his unbridled imagination are juxtaposed with the mundane cruelty of his life in a suffocating shed, rendered with brutal realism in Lily Arnold’s revolving set.

Earnest and never cloying, Duncan-Reid is onstage for nearly the entirety of the play and traverses young Jack’s journey with conviction. It’s a pity Donoghue decided to split the character in two, diluting Jack’s emotional richness and muddling the chemistry between him and Ma. Shadowing Jack is his alter ego, SuperJack (played by adult Brandon Michael Arrington), who delivers much of the character’s exposition-heavy monologues, which, though faithful to the source material’s first-person narration, ultimately bogs down this stage adaptation.

As Ma, Gordon’s performance is nothing short of a triumph, a deft portrayal that both captures the psychological torment of captivity and her character’s soft-handed nature as Jack’s mother. As the curtain rises, Gordon’s Ma doesn’t appear like a woman who has been locked up for much of her young adult life. Her cheery-eyed smile lights up the room; she’s the light of Jack’s life. But in fleeting moments, as she begins to hatch a plan to escape, her seemingly unflappable veneer begins to crack.

In these instances, the character transcends reality and breaks into song. Billed as a “play with music,” the production is punctuated by several songs by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, which though largely unmemorable, effectively capture what cannot be said in Donoghue’s script (at times lacking the playful humour of her novel and the propulsive drive of her 2015 movie screenplay). Gordon’s finale in act one, a helpless lament for Jack, paired with Bonnie Beecher’s ingenious lighting design, is astonishingly moving.

The rest of the cast is uniformly superb, especially Ashley Wright, as the despicably vile captor, and Tracey Ferencz and Stewart Arnott as Jack’s grandma and grandpa, two roles more fully realized than in the novel. Shannon Taylor rounds out the company playing a cop, interviewer and popcorn server.

It’s a small cast in an intimate production. Much of the first act plays like a two-hander. So, that Mirvish decided to mount this production at the cavernous Princess of Wales Theatre seems like an unforced error. (Arnold’s three-walled set, specifically, makes for poor sight lines; pick seats in the centre, if possible.)

Yet, “Room” still resonated widely with Thursday’s opening night audience. It’s difficult to imagine, in some parallel universe where the pandemic never took hold, that “Room” would be as poignant as it is in this moment. Even though Ma’s experience is unfathomable to most, the play’s themes of isolation, grief and hope feel especially prescient after two years of a pandemic.

Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Joshua via email: jchong@torstar.ca


Credit belongs to : www.thestar.com

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