In 2009, Spirit of the West front man John Mann was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In 2014 he released his solo album The Waiting Room, a very personal musical journey through his two year battle. Today, with the help of playwright Morris Panych, Mann’s album gets a music video treatment of sorts, only this time you won’t find it on Much Music, as it plays out live each night on the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage.
From initial diagnosis, through his operation and recovery, The Waiting Room deals in a very personal way the good (it isn’t a secret that Mann made a full recovery); the bad (the uncertainty of recovery coupled with the seeming interminable ‘waiting’ for which the title has double meaning); and the ugly (dealing with after-effects of the operation).
As his battle with cancer plays out on stage, it is punctuated by songs from Mann’s album. The songs underscore the emotions that Mann was feeling at each stage of his journey, at times contemplative, angry, philosophical, and even appreciative. But it is also very, very personal. Music may have the ability to expose and heal, but combined with Panych’s book, this play with music takes it all to the next level.
Adding a metaphysical aspect to the play, Panych has conjured a young leukemia patient, known simply as “C” (most of the characters go by a single initial). Partly a manifestation of Mann’s fears, it is in her representation as all those others dealing with cancer that hits home the hardest. As played by Matreya Scarrwener, there is a maturity in her performance that is devastating, as “C” is forced to grow up and face her mortality at the age of fourteen. Preparing “J” for the worse, Scarrwener steals our hearts with the sad realization that cancer does not discriminate.
As “J”, Jonathon Young runs the full spectrum of grief over his diagnosis. The penultimate “Thank You” is so filled with joy by both by Young on stage and through the accompanying song, it will give you hope: “I sit and wait for the black crows to fly by my windows; Hey here come the black crows, to fly past my windows; Thank you … thank you … thank you.”
Playing many of the people that “J” deals with through the course of his battle – including doctors, nurses, and friends – the ensemble of Bonnie Panych, Chris Cochrane and Peter Anderson add a certain whimsy that has become the trademark of director and book writer, Morris Panych. As “J”’s wife, Jillian Fargey is simultaneously vulnerable and supportive, and Mann’s “For Jill” is the quintessential love letter.
Filled with movement from collaborator Wendy Gorling set against Ken MacDonald’s stark white set, the real surprise of the night though comes from the appearance of Mann himself.
Behind an upstage scrim, Mann and his band (Brad Gillard, Eric Reed, Allan Rodger and Shari Ulrich), give us a concert within the play. Mann’s songs burst with life, understanding and with a pathos that goes far beyond what a traditional musical might offer. It is what makes this theatrical version of The Waiting Room so compelling and unique.
As the audience leapt to its feet on opening night, it was one person’s reaction that drew my attention as they do not easily give up a standing ovation. As I asked about their reaction, the explanation made it clear that the journey explored in The Waiting Room will resonate for those that have gone through a similar experience.
It also gives hope, and that is its biggest strength. Fuck cancer, indeed.
The Waiting Room with book by Morris Panych and music and lyrics by John Mann. Directed by Morris Panych. Musical direction by Allan Rodger. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Arts Club Granville Island stage until October 31. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.