DESCENT by Tom Walmsley, directed by Kate Lynch, with John Blackwood, Deborah Hay, Paul Fauteux, Christopher Morris and Brendan Murray. Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (Thursday, October 26) and runs to November 19, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$30. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Actor Deborah Hay is going straight to hell.
Well, maybe not straight she doesn't actually get there until the second act of Tom Walmsley's new play, Descent.
Hay creates the role of Susan, a woman who wants a passionate, raunchy experience before entering a conventional marriage.
To reach her goal, she picks up two guys friends both named Randy at a dive.
"That's where the first act begins, in the apartment of one of the Randys," Hay says with a knowing smile. "Susan is so drunk that she blacks out regularly, and when she awakens she has to play catch-up. And since the audience leaves the action with her, they also have to pick up on what the other characters have said and done.
"It's all seemingly innocent, light, quick and quite funny, almost like a farce."
The second act is another story, a very dark one.
"We return to these characters eight years later, still driven by the liquor that's fuelled them in the first act, and we see the monster inside each of them," Hay says. " The descent of the title, I think, begins during the passage of time.
"If the first act teeters on the brink of hell, the second opens open at hell's doorway. We're in the ruins of a desecrated church, where we've all paused in our tumble for a brief drink and a chat."
Her startling ability to plumb and reveal a character's soul makes Hay a striking figure onstage. She's spent three seasons at Stratford, done the classics with Soulpepper and performed contemporary works at Passe Muraille, creating memorable portraits both comic and serious.
She's also done Walmsley before in a Fringe production of The Jones Boy, playing a sharp-tongued prostitute so she knows this emotional territory.
"I love Tom's exhilarating writing for its boldness, its complete lack of apology. He is fiercely funny, in person and on the page. I find his writing surprising and brutally honest. That's what makes it great fun and also difficult to perform."
She searches for the words to describe those various qualities of the playwright's work.
"His characters don't speak in obvious one-two-threes. They make big leaps in reason and intention, the way people do who are truly awake, inspired or insane.
"The rest of us, meanwhile, scramble around behind them, trying to keep up, make some sense or glean some wisdom out of what they say before they leave us too far behind."
And what's it like to play the only woman in the show, a woman who at some level turns on all the male characters?
"It's awful that everyone's interested in her," laughs the actor. "She's determined and direct, and I'm shy.
"I actually don't find Susan sexy, certainly not the disillusioned, messy drunk we meet in the second act. But if you're in hell, maybe that's all there is. It's better than nothing."