To most Americans, Canada is that strange nation to the north whose major exports are beer, hockey players, and Degrassi High. Our idea of the country is that of a colder, more rural United States where everything and everyone's a bit cleaner and a bit nicer. But Judith Thompson's play The Crackwalker, produced by New World Theater, shows a different side of Canada by focusing on the desperate denizens of Kingston, Ontario, circa 1979. The result is a harrowing, powerful tale of economic depression and mental illness. Therese is a mentally challenged manipulator and compulsive liar who makes her doughnut money by servicing gay men and sleeps on her friend Sandy's couch. Sandy, a rage-filled, emotionally damaged woman, is married to Joe, an abusive, womanizing gambler. Joe's friend Alan (who is seeing Therese) is a twitchy former addict with a tenuous grip on reality.
Sandy and Joe fight and make up as they try to establish a better life for themselves. Alan and Therese get married and have a baby, against the wishes of her social worker and with the misgivings of Therese, who previously had a baby taken away from her. Though Therese is no longer working as a prostitute, she is not bright enough to take care of a child or to realize that Alan is mentally ill and should not be responsible for her or their son. Even the relatively stable influence of their friends cannot stop the tragedy that is to come.
The reality of the events portrayed onstage is helped along by the theater space itself. The Access Theater is on the fourth floor of a building that evidently houses another performance space above it; at several moments during the performance, there were loud banging noises and voices raised in anger coming from upstairs. One could imagine them stemming from arguments among other tenants in Joe and Sandy's apartment building.
Tattered, mismatched furniture is easy to do on a small budget, but period costumes are not; design consultant Frankie Keane picked out some cute vintage duds for the ladies. Thompson's gritty script mimicked regular conversations in its language, rhythms, and the ebb and flow of conflict. Two characters would be at odds with each other but then talk themselves into agreement through their mutual ire against a third character. These transitions occurred so naturally that it was hard to remember who was mad at whom, as sometimes happens in life.
The strong writing is complemented by the strong acting on display by the cast of non-union actors. Melanie Kuchinski Rodriguez brings a long-simmering bitterness and a great Canadian accent to the mostly reactive role of Sandy. Her physical confrontations with David Wesley Cooper, who believably plays the mercurial Joe, are fraught with danger and sex.
Karron Karr doesn't always succeed with the very stylized slang that Therese speaks, but she underplays her character's mental handicap even as she nails her mix of naïveté and sexual sophistication. Kelly Miller rises to the challenge of Alan, who changes from eccentric but lovable to psychotic and frightening in the course of the show.
On Broadway and Off-Broadway, Irish playwrights are now all the rage. On Off-Off-Broadway, most produced scripts are written by new local playwrights and Shakespeare. While it's important to foster the talents of young New York writers, importing plays like The Crackwalker can only add depth to the city's cultural offerings.