Pains of Youth

in the director’s notes for the U of Alberta Studio Theatre production Pains of Youth last month, Kim McCaw commented that he found troubling parallels between the world of the young students in the play and the uncertain future for present-day students, who find that “holding on to hope and optimism is increasingly difficult”.  I cannot confirm this first-hand, being neither pessimistic nor exactly a youth, but I found the world of the 1920s German medical students easy to slip into.   Ferdinand Bruckner wrote the play in German in about 1929.

The play is set in the lodgings of graduating medical student Marie (Andrea Rankin).   The other students and young people in the play live in the same lodging house or nearby, and Lucy (Mariann Kirby) is an eighteen-year-old housemaid.  We don’t meet the landlady.  The detailed set created an appealing cozy environment for Marie, surrounded with books, desks, suitcases, anatomy posters, and even a bowl of knitting.  I was distracted by trying to figure out what house layout would be compatible with the bits we saw and were told.  The door backstage left opened to Desiree’s room but they talked as if there was another door to the hallway from Desiree’s room.  The door stage right opened to a hallway of the lodging house, and people visiting Marie always entered and left by that door.   Between the two doors there was a window over Marie’s bed, which was illuminated as if it were open to the outside.  I guess one way this could work would be if the hallway proceeded past Marie’s room in the imaginary space where the audience was sitting, but as this didn’t occur to me until afterwards I was stuck trying to think whether their set design was inconsistent.

At intermission I was thinking that Marie was the only likeable character in the whole menagerie.  We saw her helping Desiree prepare for an exam and walking her to the exam hall for luck, buying Petrell a writing desk, showing kindness and humanity towards Lucy the chambermaid, and preparing a party to celebrate her graduation with all her friends.  We also learn that she’s from humble origins and has been funding her studies (and possibly her friends’) through dressmaking.  I identified with her immediately.

But of course things got more complicated.  Marie’s friends include Petrell (Neil Kuefler) a poet and former student she’s been romantically involved with but also been nurturing, Alt (Kristian Stec) a doctor who lost his license to practice due to the kind of ethical/legal issue that would still be controversial today, and medical students Freder (Graham Mothersill), Desiree (Georgia Irwin), and Irene (Cristina Patalas).  By intermission it seemed to me that all of them were kind of messed up, and Graham Mothersill’s Freder was so awful that labels like “sociopath” or “evil” were crossing my mind.

Desiree, the more junior student who lives in a room adjoining Marie’s, is obviously her intimate.  Her clinginess and admiration for Marie made it hard for me to tell, at first, whether she saw Marie as a platonic friend or sister, or whether there was some romantic or sexual component to her affections.  She expressed that ambiguous needy affection in ways that made me uncomfortable, because she talked about wanting to cuddle in a bed with Marie like she and her little sister had as children, and at first I thought that her advances made Marie uncomfortable too.  But later in the story, after Petrell has taken up with Irene, Marie seems to be sexually involved with Desiree and the other characters all take this in stride.

The next play in the 2013-2014 U of A Studio Theatre mainstage series is Bloody Poetry, currently playing.

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