The last time I saw Jesse Gervais on stage with Theatre Network he and Lora Brovold were making me cry in Let the Light of Day Through, as directed by Bradley Moss. This week I saw him and Amber Borotsik in the Theatre Network production of Hannah Moskovitch’s Little One, also directed by Bradley Moss. And I did tear up a bit again, but mostly I just found it so gripping that I kind of forgot to breathe and completely lost awareness of the passage of time. One of my theatregoing companions said that his foot fell asleep and he didn’t want to move.
The character telling the story, Aaron (Gervais), is a doctor, a surgical resident about 30 years old. He spends most of the play talking to the audience or maybe his off-stage colleagues about his memories of life with his troubled younger sister. His narrative is interspersed with scenes where he and his sister Claire (Borotsik) are children and young teenagers. With subtle shifts in body and voice and credible dialogue, Gervais made a convincing child of eight to fourteen years old, the older brother who is trying to be the good kid, who cares about his sister but is frustrated and sometimes angry or frightened or resentful at her behaviour and her effect on the family. It was very clear that Borotsik was portraying a child a couple of years younger than Aaron in each scene, but also that something was a little off about her affect.
The other people recurring in the stories, Mum and Dad and the neighbours Kim-Lee and Roger, are not represented directly, and the story feels sufficient with just the two characters, through the past and in the present. In the present, the siblings are not interacting face-to-face. It seems that they have been out of touch for some time, but Aaron receives a cassette tape letter in the mail from his sister and plays it, as we see Claire telling the story on the tape. Basically everything on stage is storytelling, either acting out in flashback, Aaron’s direct narrative, or Claire’s story on tape – but the performance is still very intense. The audience was very quiet on the preview night, chuckling nervously at a few appropriate places but otherwise I think other people were as gripped by the story as I was.
And what was the story? Part of why it was so effective for me was that I didn’t know much about it ahead of time, so I think I won’t recount the narrative here. It’s got some elements of awfulness, but every time I thought, I see where this is going, I know what all these stories mean, I was not quite right. My companions agreed with me that the writing was very clever, with some plot elements being surprising when they happened and then making such complete sense afterwards that we felt as if we should have guessed but didn’t.
One of the most effective things in the way this story was told was Aaron’s way of hinting at things he couldn’t bear to say. He’d use circumlocutions “that day” “the … incident …” but he’d also start lots of sentences that he couldn’t finish, sometimes trying two or three times before finding a way in to a painful story. Gervais as the adult Aaron seemed to have a very tense jawline, as he struggled to tell things that the character said he didn’t often talk about. And you could see that the careful, self-controlled surgical resident was who the younger Aaron had turned into, the little boy who lost two families and the teenager whose parents needed him to be an adult too young.
I’m writing a lot more about Gervais’s character than about Borotsik’s, because part of her effective portrayal was showing that Claire did not have normal attachment to her family or others, and she basically didn’t seem to make eye contact with the audience either. She was heartbreaking and frightening and occasionally funny.
I don’t actually remember if there were any stage-manager warnings about content posted at the box office. There isn’t an intermission, which is how I prefer it for an emotionally intense show. There is some swearing. And there are some disturbing concepts.
Can I say I liked it? It’s not that simple. I’m very glad I went, I’d go again if I had time, and I bet it will be nominated for more than one Sterling Award category. You should see it too, if you can tolerate some painful subject matter in a good story well done. Tickets are here.