Other People, written and performed by Daniel Brooks
Canadian Stage, Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Toronto
The Bombshell of Feeling Alive
For someone nearly 63 years of age, Daniel Brooks opens his show with some surprisingly physical agility and sleek dance moves which made me envious of him. This opening night audience of the World Premiere of his ‘Other People’ personally appeared to appreciate seeing him back on stage after an absence of some time.
And then a silent tsunami wave enveloped the Baillie auditorium when Brooks announced he has Stage 4 terminal lung cancer, not from smoking.
If you are one of those individuals where the dreaded ‘c’ word has not affected any family members or friends, you are fortunate and must count your blessings. For me, the mention of the ‘c’ word makes me hold my breath and slowly exhale to not reveal what I’m personally feeling inside. I try not to become emotional but as a colorectal cancer survivor myself over 13 years ago, losing a younger sibling that same year and a father over sixty years ago, and having an older sister and our mother who have experienced other forms of the disease and survived, cancer takes its toll not only on the person but also on the community members who are there and want to help.
So, when Brooks dropped his bombshell announcement, it hit me full face knockout hard..
However, he and director Brendan Healy wisely and safely chose not to turn this one hour and forty-minute story into potential trigger moments where there might or could have been continued wiping away of tears (from me) or possible uncontrollable silent sobbing (from others). Healy’s subtly nuanced direction in having Daniel sit in a chair and tell the story did not create a contrived performance from the artist.
Not at all for me.
Instead, Brooks carefully exposes and fervently narrates what he experienced with vivid clarity and ardent perspicacity the roller coaster (I know, a tired comparison) one experiences in dealing with cancer. I get it. I know it because I've been there personally and re-experienced vicariously those same raw emotions in watching last night's opening. I also saw how Brooks who, through incorporating sharp wit, combats the fear, the anger, and the helplessness he must continue to feel daily as he moves forward as best he can.
Now, where does the title ‘Other People’ fit in? It’s here where I believe this story resonated strongly within me as a survivor. Brooks often realistically and sometimes candidly explores the grace, the equanimity, and the humour behind what he calls his ‘dancing and love affair with cancer’ through meeting other people on his journey on the ten-day silent meditation retreat in Montebello, Québec. In my mind, I could visualize some of these other people who were at the retreat - The Regurgitator, Red Crocs, Tony Small are only a handful of names - and smiled hearing about Daniel’s response to them.
Cancer is a journey where the individual is not alone. A retreat allows the individual to be alone but recognizes there are other people around who are also there for different reasons.
As a practicing Catholic, I’ve participated in two, two-night, three-day silent retreats before. So, I understand the framework is to re-connect the individual back to that spiritual life-giving force that exists within each of us that cannot be destroyed. I will concur that sometimes during these two silent retreats my mind did wander to other things.
During his retreat meant to help centre him in his healing process, Daniel’s mind sometimes ventured away from this specific task. He speaks to us about his daughters and is pleased they now return his telephone calls. Yet, Daniel is concerned about the effect of his eventual death on them. Brooks also refers to some Russian literature in which he is interested. He also speaks about a woman with whom he had an affair years ago that was very satisfying at that time in his life.
Brooks delivers a naturalistic, convincing performance throughout of a man who now takes stock of what has become most important in his life, those who have helped to shape who he is now and what time remains of his being here on earth, eerily emphasized with the tolling sound of the bell. I have no idea and will not even comment on whether Brooks practices his faith but, as a practicing Catholic myself, I am grateful ‘Other People’ became a validation of my faith when I heard Daniel speak about the reality that none of us knows how much time we have left here on earth. This same universal truth is of paramount importance from a Christian faith perspective as death is something not to be feared since it is not the end of life.
Daniel even comments near the end of the production about ‘the great privilege of being alive’, another universal truth which is ensconced in Christianity.
Final Comments: I am saddened that I have never had the opportunity to see other plays by Daniel Brooks either as playwright, actor, or director. I feel terrible that he has Stage 4 terminal lung cancer as I know that same fear and sadness that stems from this horrible disease.
Other People continually reminded me of that great privilege of being alive and it’s one I so desperately needed to hear especially now in emerging from the worldwide pandemic and violence in Ukraine and Russia.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.
‘Other People’ runs to April 3 at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at Canadian Stage, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto. For tickets, call 416-368-3110 or visit www.canadianstage.com.
Directed by Brendan Healy
Featuring: Daniel Brooks
Set and Lighting Design by: Kimberly Purtell
Wardrobe Coordinator by: Ming Wong and Laura Delchiaro
Stage Manager: Arwen MacDonell
Sound Design: Thomas Ryder Payne