CAPTURE ME written and directed by Judith Thompson, with Randi Helmers, Tom McCamus, Nancy Palk, Chick Reid and Maurice Dean Wint. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (January 4), opens Tuesday (January 6) and runs to February 8, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm (no matinee January 3). $26-$32, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $17. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Actor Randi Helmers has spent the past year in a tragic state. But only onstage. After her first summer at Stratford, where she performed in a trio of plays based on the Greek legends of the house of Atreus and in Peter Hinton's The Swanne, Helmers is back in Toronto in the premiere of the latest Judith Thompson show, Capture Me.
She plays Jerry, a teacher stalked by her psychotic former husband and given support by a fellow teacher and a new immigrant father whose daughter is in her class. It's a gruelling show for Helmers and the rest of the cast, for Thompson turns up the characters' emotions to the high setting for most of the play.
"Apart from The Swanne, which is a romantic story, I've been dealing with ideas of fate, destiny and all those heavy concepts for months now," muses the clearly drained Helmers while eating her lunch after a high-intensity rehearsal.
"Jerry's journey through the piece is to discover that she can mobilize and take positive action against what's happening to her, become active in rather than reactive to the world."
An actor who's mostly been involved with new Canadian shows, Helmers has been part of Capture Me's development process since last March. In the fall she spent another three weeks helping sculpt the piece as part of the Tarragon's Workspace series of new scripts.
"I can't imagine not having that time period to work on the piece, for the range of emotions that it requires needs time to filter through. You can do it" - in fact, many new plays are put on their feet in less than three weeks - "but you need a longer creative process to give the text its full impact."
In most Thompson plays, the characters are obsessed figures who won't let go of their hobby horses. That's part of the fascination of her writing, which draws Helmers - who's known Thompson since they were in high school together - to the playwright's fiery emotions and dazzling imagery.
"I get shaky when I talk about it, but the depth of poetry in Judith's writing has me in awe. She seems to write from the subconscious, and we actors are often saying things that don't make sense. But Judith says that sometimes common sense is an enemy to dramaturgy, that in some instances we just have to yield to the chaotic, terrifying forces she unleashes and see where they take us."
A visual artist who's recently been working in abstract forms, Helmers understands that impulse of just going for it.
"Sometimes when I'm painting, I have the impulse to throw in a colour and don't know what's happening until I step back from the canvas, refusing to analyze it until some later point."
What key thing does Helmers appreciate about Thompson's writing? The combination of epic emotions and "little details that sweep you in and grasp you in the midst of a storm.
"Judith turns on the tap when she writes. My sense is that she doesn't edit and lets it all come out. That takes enormous trust in your intuition and guts."