Jason/M.C.), Ann Holloway (Mother/
Judith Thompson’s first play in six years contains so many murders one is tempted to make comparisons to “Hamlet.” But “Sled” is a much more accessible play than usual from a playwright who specializes in darkly poetic symbolism and such themes as Catholic guilt, redemption, vengeance and forgiveness.
The story follows the desperate life of young delinquent Kevin (Michael Mahonen), who was stolen at age 4 by a baby-sitter and, in adulthood, acts out his rage. His life and nefarious deeds collide with his long-lost sister, his best friend, a lounge singer, her brutal cop husband and a neighbor.
John Jenkins’ set of two semi-detached, working-class Toronto homes and a birch forest bleeds into the audience, creating a closeness that is at times appropriately claustrophobic, but director Duncan McIntosh has not quite made the playing area his own. At times there is a self-conscious, choreographed feeling at odds with action that flows from a visceral, emotional center.
In a Thompson play not even the songs are allowed to be ordinary, but instead are disturbing narratives in which the normally reticent lounge singer Annie (Nancy Palk) releases her emotions. After one number (composed by the playwright’s brother, Bill Thompson) in which Annie goes on at length about the fate of a fox seen on downtown streets, a character comments, “Haven’t heard that one before.”
There is much other humor, which comes as a necessary and welcome release alongside the graphic and grisly — a forced incest sex scene, several brutal murders and the degradation of Kevin’s sister as a stripper.
Among a host of fascinating characters, the most gripping is Kevin, a hateful and scary criminal who is also strangely vulnerable. It’s an explosive combination, the kind of philosophical and moral positioning that makes Thompson’s plays so provocative.
Director McIntosh, who has worked extensively at the Shaw Festival, lends a fluid hand, but his touch is occasionally a bit too florid. The last of three acts, for example, is somewhat messy and could use both tightening and some delicacy in the direction.
There are strong performances throughout, with especially fine work from Ron White as the cop, J.W. Carroll as neighbor Joe and Pamela Matthews as the sister. But no one falls short here, and Palk’s Annie has some particularly haunting moments, as does Mahonen’s Kevin.
This may not be Thompson’s best work (she had nine shows in production across Canada and abroad in 1996), but even a less-than- perfect Thompson play is yards ahead of most others. And while “Sled” is solidly rooted in the Canadian north, its environmental conflicts, inner-city crime and mythic subtexts are wholly universal.