REVIEW: Psychological dramedy skillfully blends two separate stories

Janet Munsil’s That Elusive Spark runs through March 16 at Langham Court Theatre

Dr. John Harlow, played by Michael Romano, cared for industrial accident victim Phineas Gage, whose story of surviving his horrific injury formed part of the basis for playwright Janet Munsil’s That Elusive Spark, on now at Langham Court Theatre. Daguerrotype by Mercedes Batiz-Benét

Talented Victoria playwright Janet Munsil’s latest work was on display at Langham Court Theatre on Thursday night, and the packed opening-night house didn’t leave disappointed.

That Elusive Spark walks the tightrope blending two different, yet related stories: the true story of Phineas Gage, a railroad construction foreman who suffers a horrific injury and brain damage in an 1848 industrial explosion; and Dr. Helen Harlow, a distant relative of Gage’s doctor and a modern-day human behaviourist who ironically struggles to understand her own feelings of low self esteem and anxiety.

It’s an examination of getting through life as best we can, no matter what life throws at us, but also how circumstances change us. Despite the overarching serious psychological and medical themes, Munsil’s injection of humour into the script helped balance off the ever-present sadness and struggle in the story.

Kassiani Austin is believable as the neurotic Helen, who does her best to avoid any deep look at her own issues by running away instead. Overqualified, she takes a job teaching Psychology 101 at a community college, while also reluctantly agreeing to lecture on the Gage case, given her family connection.

She starts the talk well, but suddenly suffers pangs of self-doubt and runs frantically off stage to a washroom. Her entire breakdown, revealed over a still-on cordless microphone in her pocket, is heard by her audience and provides fresh humiliation for the beleaguered professor. The scene provides one of the most humorous moments in the show, but you still feel for the character’s emotional struggles.

The portrayal of Gage, played expertly by Trevor Hinton, begins like many other period pieces: he falls in love and works with pride at his job as a demolition expert. Where Hinton shines is after the blast that sends a heavy iron rod through Gage’s face and skull, a trauma that should have killed him but miraculously doesn’t.

His personality changes post-accident include angry outbursts and inappropriate behaviour and comments, behaviours we now attribute to when certain areas of the brain stop functioning properly, as in some dementia patients.

Wielding the iron rod that shot through his head like some sort of trophy or mystical protector, his dramatic emotional flashes were rather frightening at times. At one point, as he describes to his horrified former love interest (Lianne Coates) that they would need to protect their future children from things like explosions that might happen, the loud boom! he let out made this reviewer jump.

The period narrative does a good job portraying how the people closest to Gage deal with his changed personality – his workmate and friend Jack Kerwin (Aidan Dunsmuir) clearly suffers PTSD from witnessing the incident, the lover drowns herself and the mild-mannered Dr. John Harlow (Michael Romano), goes onto speak about Gage’s medical curiosity.

While doctors in the mid-1800s had only rudimentary remedies for emotional anxiety – Kerwin is administered some powerful, yet unnamed potion – the present-day narrative touches on the modern-day use of medications to combat depression. Helen refuses to use them at first, later relents, then regrets her decision after roommate Finlay (Thomas Miller) chides her for being too over-the-top perky.

While I didn’t necessarily leave pondering the ways a person changes to the point they aren’t themselves anymore, I was struck by the artistic blending of the two story lines.

In a kind of Wizard-of-Oz way, the fact six of the eight cast members play a role in each era led my mind to want to link their characters together and find similarities between them. Munsil cleverly wrote some commonalities into the characters, which helped me resolve the two stories better by the end.

Director Mercedes Batiz-Benét managed to weave the two stories together virtually seamlessly, and the simple, combined set made for fluid movements on stage, even when both stories were happening at once.

I’d recommend seeing this production, and for some added understanding of the story going in, search online for Phineas Gage injury. That Elusive Spark runs now through March 16. Visit langhamtheatre.ca for more details and ticket information.



editor@mondaymag.com

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