At the theatre last month, I found myself feeling awkwardly uncomfortable. A divert-my-eyes or feel-like-silently-squirming-out kind of uncomfortable. Not in pique or protest or self-righteousness, not in boredom or in disinterest, but in something else. Awash in the feeling a neat-freak might have glancing at a sink of unwashed dishes, or a musically inclined person might have when a chord sequence doesn’t resolve.
It was the play The Boy in the Moon, brought to stage by the vision of Susannah Dalfen in honour of her late husband, Charles (Chuck) Dalfen. As Susannah (disclosure: a friend) described her choice of tribute to the GCTC opening night audience, September 18, at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, “This play symbolizes for me a great deal of what Chuck stood for: the value of creativity and the deep sensitivity to navigate the world through both our vulnerability and our strengths.”
It’s a stunning quote, beautiful in its tender insight about a beloved life partner taken too soon – and even more stunning when one considers the unexpected range of strengths and vulnerabilities portrayed in the play. Adapted by playwright Emil Sher from Globe and Mail journalist Ian Brown’s memoir, the play chronicles the experience of a husband and wife raising their profoundly disabled son.
As the play progresses, we realize there are two sets of abilities and challenges being depicted, which sometimes overlap and other times clash: those of each parent, together and separately, and those of the struggling son, who never appears directly on stage.
I later mulled over the feeling of discomfort I, as an audience member, had experienced. Being privy to the living hell suffered by these characters, compounded by the knowledge that these two people are based on actual individuals, is difficult enough. But observing more negativity, lamenting and pessimism than any other single emotion emitted by the characters was nearly devastating. If there were trays of lemonade being passed around the edges of the lemon-filled orchard that was their life, that broken mother and father were sipping none of it.
Though he wasn’t in attendance, it was my husband who later helped me understand it. It was the feeling of someone who sees herself as compassionate and empathetic, who is prone to a degree of worry, obsessiveness and anxiety, like many others are, but who also possesses a degree of unassailable optimism.
More broadly, that feeling reminded me of the attempts at social justice I try to eke out here and there, in my local community and beyond, with bits of success and plenty of failure. It reminded me of the belief I nurture in my heart if any of this is to matter: the belief that circumstances are, in some way, changeable and improvable; the belief that hope should be nurtured at all costs.
When I think of issues I have concerned myself with over the last couple of years, several examples come to mind:
Palestinians and Israelis won’t have everything they want, respectively, but they can each have a great deal, if they are willing to compromise along the right lines;
Processes of inclusion within our community institutions can indeed work if stakeholders are properly convinced that expansion of boundaries doesn’t have to mean the erosion of values and tradition;
And, at the most abstract level, we can always have compassion for the other without giving up our own sense of internal solidarity.
Looking into the face of the other when that face has been drained of hope, however, makes the task of tikkun olam that much more difficult. Maintaining focus when others are naysaying, or simply continuing in the midst of direct obstacles, all suck the life out of the social justice seeker’s task.
But it was good practice for me that night. It was good for me to experience emotional discomfort in that darkened theatre. It was good practice for realizing something so important and yet, often, elusive: that those who are the neediest may never be able to provide the writer, the activist, the would-be giver, with the dose of optimism required to make the work easier. But neither are we free to desist from it.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.