LUCY by Damien Atkins, directed by Eda Holmes, with Seana McKenna, Tony Munch, Philippa Domville, Brendan Murray and Meg Roe. Presented by CanStage at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 8) and runs to April 14, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$55. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Playwright Damien Atkins has a surprisingly simple way of choosing his topics. He writes about things that terrify him. That was part of the inspiration for his latest work, Lucy, which looks at Vivian, a woman suddenly forced to deal with the title figure, the 13-year-old autistic daughter she hasn't seen in years.
"The most vital human relationship is that between mother and daughter," muses the writer, who's also a skilled performer. "It's sacred, a source of strength and love. In Lucy, I want to put that idea to the test, to see how strong it is, whether it can be broken.
"Can you, for instance, forgive someone who violates or abuses that trust, and how do you do so?
"Those questions came to me early, and they frightened me, so I knew that I'd be putting myself on a journey to write the play. And if I did the job right, the audience would go on a journey as well."
Along with Vivian and Lucy, the cast of characters includes Lucy's father, her therapist and Vivian's research assistant.
Atkins wants the world of the play to be wider than the two central figures, and also to speak to topics beyond autism.
"It's turned out that autism - which manifests in various forms, from difficulty communicating and expressing emotions to extreme physical sensitivities - is a striking prism through which to look at non-autistic people," says the playwright, whose other scripts include Good Mother and the Dora-winning Real Live Girl.
"Autistic behaviour magnifies or reduces the qualities that we all share as human beings. It gave me a way to look at the interconnections between the characters, to draw links between the autistic Lucy and the others, whose behaviour most people would consider normal."
If the work is about outsiders, the playwright believes that Vivian, played by Seana McKenna, is as troubled a figure as her daughter.
"I guess the point of the play," Atkins smiles, "is the validity of putting people in categories, boxes that distance you from others and don't allow for real understanding or compassion."
And what's Lucy's perspective on all this?
"I feel strongly that Lucy's not aware of her difficulties," says Meg Roe, who plays the youngster. "For that reason I didn't want to know too much about the clinical aspects of autism but rather to draw on behaviours that came from me, from how I am in the world.
"Creating Lucy was more a matter of exacerbating my own habits, bringing out my own traits in a more intense way. In earlier versions of the script, Lucy screamed a lot; now she's finding different ways to communicate."
Roe, whose Toronto work includes Billy Nothin' and The Ventriloquist, admits that developing Lucy's personality was only one challenging aspect of the production. She also has to interact with those onstage, and do so in a non-traditional fashion.
"It's hard to know whether what I'm doing is working, because I can't see how I'm affecting the other actors," she notes. "Lucy rarely looks at the others and makes little eye contact. I just have to trust that Damien's text, director Eda Holmes and my own instincts will lead me in the right direction."
Both actor and playwright know that the piece deals with difficult material and might make audiences uncomfortable. Roe notes, importantly, that Lucy isn't an issue play about autism but, rather, a relationship play with which anyone can identify.
"Being uncomfortable isn't a bad thing in the theatre," says Atkins. "It's a sign that a show is raising important, provocative questions.
"It's a show that examines alienation, how we alienate ourselves from others, but it's not meant to make viewers feel alienated at the end.
"Instead, the play suggests that we can still connect with others. We just have to be careful about how."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
Damien Atkins on collaborating with Seana McKenna