WHITE BITING DOG by Judith Thompson, directed by Nancy Palk (Soulpepper). At Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill). To October 1. $5-$65. 416-866-8666, soulpepper.ca. See listing. Rating: NNN
Some things get tamer with age, but not Judith Thompson's White Biting Dog. The play premiered in 1984 and won the Governor General's Award, yet feels as current as ever. In this remount, Soulpepper unleashes a fierce, engaging production.
A suicidal young man, Cape (Mike Ross), believes a white dog has stopped him from leaping off the Bloor Viaduct by telling him to help his ailing father, Glidden (Joseph Ziegler). Convinced that his salvation and happiness lie in reuniting his estranged parents, Cape enlists the support of a trusting stranger named Pony (Michaela Washburn) and then goes to great lengths trying to persuade his mother, Lomia (Fiona Reid), to leave her young boyfriend, Pascal (Gregory Prest), and return to the family home.
Thompson has crafted each line with precision, and all the characters speak with their own rhythm. Glidden struggles with incoherence as his illness overtakes him, Cape rants through manic emotional mood swings, and Pony slowly descends into a confused sadness. The dialogue blends absurdity and reality, and yet, as with a complex symphony, director Nancy Palk ensures that the play maintains its cohesiveness and momentum.
The actors all succeed at showing some of the grittiest aspects of human nature, but the more seasoned cast members give the strongest performances. Zeigler finds real humanity even in Glidden's most absurd moments, and Reid's Lomia, with her fear of aging and need for attention, becomes far more than a hypersexual cougar-mom stereotype.
Ross's Cape, however, is less convincing, because he emphasizes self-doubt more than seductive charm, making it difficult to believe the other characters would so easily succumb to his demands. This undermines the production.
White Biting Dog conveys a lot of discomfort and suffering. The ensemble's energy, the comic touches and Palk's attention to the smallest details ensure that her directorial debut leaves a strong impression.