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'The Runner' by Christopher Morris

Now onstage until November 19 at the Firehall Theatre, 185 South Street, Gananoque

Courtesy of Human Cargo Productions

Joe Szekeres

“ ‘The Runner’ is a courageous and bold performance that must be experienced live.”

The final production of the Thousand Island Playhouse’s 2023 season, ‘The Runner’ demands its audiences’ complete attention for its intense storytelling. Playwright Christopher Morris wants to create theatre that explores the extremes of the human condition.

He certainly does so with his riveting and enthralling script in this production.

‘The Runner’ becomes unsettling to watch and to listen to Jacob’s disturbing monologue harrowingly delivered to us. Three audience members left last night before the play ended. I wondered if they did so because they were bothered by the subject material since the play deals with the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Good theatre can bother you. It’s supposed to be disquieting at times. Unsettling as well. Good theatre makes us confront issues head-on, sometimes uncomfortably.

‘The Runner’ is good theatre.

The story focuses on the pushback Jacob (David Patrick Flemming), a Z.A.K.A. volunteer, experiences when his devotion to serving others – regardless of their race or creed – clashes with the divisive beliefs of the community around him. Z.A.K.A.’s mandate is a non-governmental search and rescue team that responds to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Partly motivated by Jewish burial laws, Z.A.K.A. ensures all human remains are collected and identified. It includes members from all religious and cultural groups. Z.A.K.A’s response to any event is to recover human remains and to assist victims.

It is often in assisting victims that people can be put to the test.

David Patrick Flemming takes the audience on a haunting journey as Jacob when he is put to the test. He triages an Arab woman (who is supposedly a terrorist attacker) instead of the soldier whom she has supposedly killed. As the story unfolds, Jacob is aghast by the pushback he receives from colleagues and administrators who chide his efforts. There appears to be an unwritten code of victims first and terrorists second which challenges Jacob’s moral fibre of why he is doing what he is doing with Z.A.K.A.

It’s a darkened stage when we enter the Firehall Theatre auditorium. Gillian Gallow places a treadmill centre stage. Bonnie Beecher uses a stark spotlight to illuminate the treadmill. There’s an eerie haze effect in the auditorium. After I sat down and studied the stage, my first thought was ‘Where am I?”. Combined with Alexander MacSween’s, at times distinctly jarring sound designs, this creative team smartly keeps me at the edge of my seat, wondering what’s coming next.

At the top of the show, the opening words: “What’s happening?” can be heard from the darkness.

What’s happening is a bold and brave performance by David Patrick Flemming. He never veers into histrionics for any heightened emotional impact. Flemming remains wholly grounded. He allows the words to speak for themselves and the audience to feel the impact.

His Jacob runs a credible emotional gamut of peaks and valleys. He’s shy but knows the importance of teamwork, even though some other volunteers are not nice people. Jacob wants to please his mother, with whom he lives. She has a hot meal ready for him at the end of the evening, but he hasn’t shown up the last two nights. His mother is not physically well, and he feels guilty about that. She nags at her son that he hasn’t given her any grandchildren yet. Flemming’s discussion of the Arab woman and what might or could happen to her is haunting.

What’s also remarkable about Flemming’s work is his continued walking on the treadmill. His pacing remains remarkably controlled. It’s fluid and natural. Sometimes, he’s running; often, he is at a leisurely pace, and there are moments when his walking is slow. Flemming never appears out of breath. If he does slow down, it’s for a particular dramatic effect. When this occurs, I’m on every word he’s saying.

According to Morris’s playwright note, this production and play were nurtured and directed by the late Daniel Brooks. Morris is credited in the programme as an Associate Director. This is my first time seeing this production, so I will credit both Brooks and Morris. The direction is tight but never feels or looks restrained.

The sincerity in Flemming’s performance is a highlight of the show. I trusted that what I was hearing and seeing was a credible person who, according to Morris: “put human decency above division, while knowing full well the consequences they’ll face.”

Final Comments: There’s a Catholic hymn with the lines: “Awake from your slumber/Arise from your sleep.”

As a practicing Catholic, I find these two lines apropos in seeing ‘The Runner.’

It’s a play that makes me awake and pay close attention to what’s occurring now in the Middle East.

Go and see ‘The Runner’. I hear there are talkbacks after specific performances with playwright Christopher Morris. I would encourage future audiences to remain after and discuss. I had many thoughts and comments running through my head that I wish there had been a talkback last night.

Running time: approximately 60 minutes with no intermission.

‘The Runner’ plays until November 19 at the Firehall Theatre, 185 South Street, Gananoque. For tickets, or call 1-613-382-7020.

‘The Runner’ by Christopher Morris
Producer, Human Cargo: Samantha MacDonald
Directed by Daniel Brooks/Associate Director: Christopher Morris/Assistant Director: Stephie Mazunya
Set and Costume Designer: Gillian Gallow
Lighting Designer: Bonnie Beecher
Composer/Sound Designer: Alexander MacSween
Stage Manager: Arwen MacDonnell

Performer: David Patrick Flemming as Jacob

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