ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS by George F. Walker, directed by Ken Gass, with Clare Coulter, Irene Poole, Catherine Fitch, Rebecca Auerbach, Layne Coleman and Nola Augustson. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Saturday (March 25), opens March 30 and runs to April 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday and April 22 at 2 pm, except March 26 at 7 pm. $25-$35, Sunday pwyc-$20, previews $12. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Since the early 70s, George F. Walker's been writing plays that make audiences laugh and cry - often at the same time.
His characters, frequently in painful situations, go for the jugular as soon as the curtain rises and don't stop until it falls.
That's true not only onstage but also on TV, where his show This Is Wonderland, co-created and written with Dani Romain, explores the Canadian justice system and finds few villains, just troubled people trying to get by in a difficult world. Typically, Walker's deep compassion informs all the characters.
Too bad the shortsighted CBC cancelled the show after its third season.
But Walker still has the stage, and now the cinema. Three of his six Suburban Motel plays have been combined in Niagara Motel, which hits screens this week.
Still, Walker's roots are in theatre, especially Factory Theatre, where artistic director Ken Gass and Walker have a long-term relationship. No surprise that Gass is directing a revival of Escape From Happiness, which premiered in 1992 and scooped up a Dora, a Chalmers and a Governor General's Award.
In fact, Walker, recently made a member of the Order of Canada, has received nine Chalmers, five Doras and two GGs.
In Escape he returned to the east end he'd written about previously, bringing back characters who appeared in Suburban Motel, Criminals In Love and Better Living.
Central to the piece is a family run by Nora, a philosophical matriarch. Each of her three daughters Elizabeth, Mary Ann and Gail is driven by strong impulses, and her husband, Tom, is attempting to re-insinuate himself into the family after some questionable acts a decade before.
They're joined by two paradoxically similar pairs: a father/son team of petty crooks and a couple of bent police officers.
"When you head toward the family as a subject," says Walker over a late lunch of eggs and rye toast, "you have a vital motor to drive a play. Family means different things to different characters. To some it's marginal, to others it's big.
"But these warrior women and the guy trying to find a place with them again are all working to survive in a threatening environment, struggling to make it in the world. There are no big political issues, just an attempt to hang in there."
He's revised Escape from a three-act into a two-act version, which played at the Yale and Milwaukee Reps. The playwright feels it's now tighter and better-shaped.
Why does he like it so much?
"I feel that I've moved beyond the anger in some of my other pieces, that the characters are trying to make it all work. There's an attempt to heal, and the show has heart."
Walker's one of the most internationally produced Canadian playwrights. He's had 40 productions of the Motel plays in Germany, where the very dark Heaven has also been a hit.
"The American productions were a watershed for me," he admits. "It's a thrill to have a company program your play because they like it, not because the Canada Council gives the theatre brownie points for staging Canadian work. God bless the audiences."
Viewers have also taken to This Is Wonderland, though not in the numbers that would impress the CBC. A petition started by audience members upset by the loss of the show is currently pushing 3,000 signatures.
"You don't see that sort of thing in the theatre," Walker says, amazed.
Despite differences between the media, Walker sees a striking similarity between Canadian theatre, film and TV.
"The only reason all three survive is that the people working in them have a passion to create. It doesn't always make economic sense, but the art is there because people need it to be there.
"Otherwise, the art would shrivel up and the audiences would buy the American product."