By Alicia Ward
George F. Walker is a playwright known for placing people in impossibly complicated situations that only get worse, while presenting his characters and their choices in a way that forbids the audience from judging them. In the University of Calgary drama department plays Problem Child and Risk Everything, the characters RJ and Denise are in the midst of a battle with social services to win back their baby, Christine, while dealing with the mysterious intentions of Denise’s mother.
“The play is about this couple who, basically, are just not on the high end of society,” explains Jonathan Brower, a U of C drama student playing RJ. “You gather from all the characters that they’ve all had a rough life.”
Both of these plays are from Suburban Motel, a collection of plays written by Walker, and will be running on alternating nights from Nov. 27 to Dec. 8 at the U of C’s Reeve Theatre. Each play in the collection explores tough decisions that need to be made to ensure survival — the characters in Problem Child and Risk Everything face death, consumption by their obsessions and emotional disparity at almost every turn.
“You have four different perspectives of what it means to live your life when you’re hoping for something,” says Brower.
Sheena Olsen, who plays Denise, recognizes that the plays also express a hopeful optimism towards the future.
“I almost feel like [Denise] always has a desire for something better,” says Olsen. “She doesn’t necessarily know how to get to that better life but she knows that there is a better life, and she sees Christine as one of the ways to get there.”
Denise is driven to get her baby back, and it is loss that fuels this drive — her baby was what gave her life value. Although the audience gets to know Denise and RJ intimately throughout the two plays, the question of what is best for the baby still exists. The situation for Denise is made worse by the obsession her husband has for reality television.
“For RJ, value is in what he sees on television,” says Brower. “His relationship with Denise, I think in his eyes, would be perfect if she was right by his side enjoying what he enjoys. He used to have this really wild lifestyle. He was in prison for three years and probation for two years, and he left that really risky lifestyle behind and now he’s this boring guy who loves television.”
In order to understand his character, Brower watched reality television to the point of obsession and found that it was easy to become emotionally invested in what was happening episode to episode.
“RJ is escaping from his reality, and I think I really saw what that means to escape from reality by watching television,” explains Brower. “It’s an interesting commentary on what we do as a society. Many things aren’t considered addictions but actually take us away from living a meaningful life.”
For Brower, both of Walker’s plays bring up interesting questions about what makes life valuable and important. Both plays question if it is ever too late to change oneself, find redemption and lead a life fully present in every circumstance and relationship. They explore vices and difficult choices based on the state of being a person is in, and the audience is given a perspective on dire conditions, last resorts and the inability to escape a life you are born into. Walker displays life without glory, and presents his characters as merely human. For Brower, this makes the characters relatable and understandable.
“We all have these things that we do to justify how we live our lives,” says Brower. “We all have our little vices. Are we doing what we need to do to not just survive, but thrive?”
While Brower sees the plays as a highly reflective experience for the audience, Olsen notes how admirable the characters are, and that they may have traits to look up to.
“What I love about Denise is that when she sets her mind to something, she gets it done,” explains Olsen. “She also has a very realistic perspective of the world. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily an optimistic perspective, but she sees things for what they are, which I respect a lot.”