Canada’s most frequently staged playwright creates work that continues to frighten mainstream producers, so it comes as no great surprise that George F. Walker’s newest play, “Heaven,” which was commissioned for Canadian Stage Co.’s mainstage, ended up bumped to the company’s smaller Berkeley Street venue after producer Martin Bragg saw the script.
Walker’s vision of paradise is filtered through a lens that declares the presence of sadness, anger, politics and repression even in the hereafter. Judy gets to heaven first. The Jewish wife of Jimmy, an Irish Catholic civil rights lawyer, she is pregnant and trapped in a marriage that has turned sour. Early on in the action she is murdered by a cop who turns nasty after his partner is nailed for inappropriate behavior by Jimmy.
In time Jimmy gets knocked off too, as does the cop, who gets into heaven because he blasphemes in shock as he’s stabbed in the back — the authorities on high interpret this as calling out to the Lord in his moment of greatest need. Redemption follows. In heaven, the cop attempts to chum it up with a black drug dealer, Derek, whom he brutalized and killed down below.
Two other characters weave through the play’s tortured pathways: Rabbi David, who is in love with Judy, and Sissy, the street kid learning circus skills to find employment. They are left behind to form a new family unit with Judy and Jimmy’s orphaned kids.
The celestial scenes don’t make up the bulk of the play, and they do not contain the only potentially offensive material. In fact it was Walker’s signature proliferation of four-letter words, more than the content, that worried the Canadian Stage administration.
Whatever the reason for the change of venue, it was the right choice. This outrageous, angry and very funny script needs to make intimate contact with its audience — the final scene is a stand-up routine spoken by Jimmy as he evaluates his life and society. In a larger space the intense energy and smoldering eye contact that is very much a part of the experience of viewing this “Heaven” would be lost.
As always in Walker’s work, every assumption is turned topsy-turvy; what’s new is the level of anger, the lowering of barriers to reveal “the soul-sucking pain” of life in a capitalist, corporate-driven age. A basic dishonesty in human relations has always been Walker’s bailiwick, and in “Heaven” it reaches new heights.
The company has taken the play to heart, and the cast’s sharp, witty performances never shy away from the rage in the text. Ron White as Jimmy and Wayne Best as the cop are especially fine as the bookends holding the story together.
And Walker has relaxed the characteristic frenzy of his directing. The pace is slower, allowing for more reflection and making the laughs ironic and often painful, leavened in unexpected places with a welcome touch of the absurd.
This is not only Walker’s most challenging play to date, it is also one of the most disturbing and rewarding evenings of theater for quite some time.