Although it takes its time, Indian Arm will sneak up on you and rip open your heart.
Rumble Theatre often tackles gritty urban dramas, and for its latest play asked Hiro Kanagawa to adapt Little Eylof, one of Henrik Ibsen’s more rarely produced plays, and set it in British Columbia with an aboriginal through-line.
Although at first it may sound simply like an arts funder’s wet dream, in reality it is a gut wrenching and powerful drama, with some truly inspired acting.
Rita is lost in thought sipping from a box of red wine in her dead father’s reservation cottage on Indian Arm River. Her husband is back from a long trip, but he still seems distant. As he focuses on their adopted 16 year-old son Wolfie, her half-sister Asta arrives for a visit. She had to arrive by boat because the bridge is closed because of a jumper. The aunt of the jumper, Janice, is trying to meet with Rita because the lease on the land has expired.
The cast of characters and the situations take a long time to set up, likely as a result of being an adaptation as older scripts can often be heavy with exposition in the first act and modern audiences expect plot to kick in much sooner.
We get a very strong sense of Rita’s needs and her rage; she is tired from raising her son who suffers from cerebral hypoxia, she wishes her husband paid more attention, and she is suspicious and resentful of Janice. Act one is filled with characters alternately trying to placate her, or avoid her.
Because Rita is so intense and out of control you wonder where she can go as she already appears to be in maximum overdrive. The plot with the jumper activates at the end of the act and as some other specifics get revealed, things get downright visceral and very, very moving.
The acting is incredibly truthful. Some of the dialogue is still saddled with the melodrama of Ibsen, but this ensemble under the direction of Steven Drover, and associate director Corey Payette, make it work.
Caitlin McFarlane is joyful and quirky as the idealistic Asta, a character that represents idealism and love. Richard Russ has the difficult job playing the mentally challenged young man, but fills it with innocence and spontaneity that becomes heart breaking as the play unfolds.
Gerry Mackay as the father Alfred has to be more stoic and quiet at first, but the rage and pain bubbling under the surface is crystal clear and when he and Rita let loose on each other it is explosive. Gloria May Eshkibok cuts a handsome and unique figure on stage as Janice, and although she struggled with some lines she gave a commanding and open-hearted presence.
Then there is the centre of the storm: Jennifer Copping is award-winningly amazing in the role of Rita. A self-destructive, but self-righteous character, her rage and cruelty is wrapped in heartbreak and desperation that you are simply mesmerized as she lashes out in act two. So much power comes from her that is never showy or forced, just raw and real. Copping makes this a worthy theatre experience.
The production design from set (Drew Facey) to lights (Conor Moore) and powerful sound scape (James Coomber) helps transport us in to the world into a spiritual place off the Indian Arm River in BC.
After an initially slow start, Indian Arm soon gathers steam with many moments that will rip open your heart. The final moments with Wolfie will bring tears long after the curtain falls.
Indian Arm by Hiro Kanagawa. Based on Little Eylof by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Steven Drover. A Rumble Theatre production. On stage at Studio 16 (1555 West 7 Ave, Vancouver) until April 18. Visit http://rumble.org for tickets and information.