Isobel, the ghost of a 7-year-old Portuguese child, hovers over a chain of loosely linked vignettes that depict people in extremis in the Alternate Theatre's gripping production of Canadian playwright Judith Thompson's 1990 drama A Lion in the Streets. Thompson's themes could be ripped from The Jerry Springer Show: infidelity, assisted suicide, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, sex and the disabled. Thompson fearlessly puts her foot to the pedal and doesn't let up. In the process, her characters scream in rage, keen in despair, and attack one another physically and verbally.
In less capable hands, all this would quickly devolve into melodrama or farce. But Thompson brings such intelligence, empathy, and humor to the task that the results are often revelatory. Helped by a talented cast of young actors who juggle multiple parts, she convinces us that we are watching real people act out their primal urges, even as the unfolding events become less and less realistic.
Thus a well-heeled mother (Tracy Weller) calls a meeting of parents to hysterically blast the working-class day care provider (Amanda Boekelheide) for feeding their kids sugary foods. A man (James Ryan Caldwell) tracks down a boyhood friend (Nathan Blew) in a quest to rip out his memory of their homosexual encounter. A severely disabled woman (Boekelheide) rises from her wheelchair and performs an erotic dance with her fantasy lover (Blew) before a straitlaced reporter. A soccer mom in sweatpants (a riveting Rachel Schwartz), humiliated by her husband's public declaration of an affair, begins a striptease for him in front of his lover and their friends in a desperate ploy to win him back.
To pull off the play's whipsaw swings in mood requires a talented design team, and the group that Canadian director Kareem Fahmy has assembled rises to the task. Of particular note is the work of Andrew Lu on lighting and Andrew Papadeas's sound and music. To pack the biggest emotional punch, Fahmy has smartly coached his actors to play their roles to the hilt without ever crossing over to caricature.
It's not surprising that a play as ambitious as Lion in the Streets is imperfect. The first act is much stronger than the second, and at two hours and 40 minutes, the play is a half-hour too long. Tania Molina, a big-boned woman, has the thankless task of portraying the child Isobel, who speaks broken English and has little of interest to contribute. The play's conclusion