'Casey and Diana' by Nick Green. The Toronto premiere
Presented by Soulpepper and now onstage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District
Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Sean Arbuckle and Katherine Gauthier
“The tremendous humanity and compassion are the reasons to see this critical theatrical work.”
One of last summer's Stratford Festival’s successes, Nick Green’s ‘Casey and Diana,’ which played June 2023 during Pride Month, celebrates its home city, Toronto premiere.
Word got out fast last summer about Green’s emotionally haunting script, and tickets flew because the talk was incredible. The play was one of the Festival’s highlights, and I overheard conversations that many wished they had the chance to see it but couldn’t.
Now’s the chance to see this critically acclaimed theatrical work for its tremendous humanity and compassion.
‘Casey and Diana’ remains a story of relationship building amid the tumultuous early 90s surrounding the supposed and irrational stigma that people couldn’t touch or be near those who suffered from AIDS. Thankfully, Green’s script contains humour to balance the sadness and fear of that time that many of us still recall. The Stratford creative team and cast have returned except for Krystin Pellerin, who played Diana, Princess of Wales. Katherine Gauthier now plays the role.
The time is 1991. The place is Casey House, the Toronto hospice for those suffering from AIDS. Word has gone out to the residents that Diana, Princess of Wales (Katherine Gauthier), will visit on October 25. The place is abuzz about her Royal Highness’s arrival.
Joshua Quinlan usefully maximizes the Baillie stage to its fullest extent. The institutional greyness of the walls has been beautified by the hanging-stained glass and the window that opens to let in fresh air. It’s as comfortable looking as can be for a hospice. An extremely loud sound miscue brought me out of the moment of returning back in time, and I had to work at it again. After that slight one-off, Debashis Sinha’s sound design and composition finely set the appropriate tone for each scene. Louise Guinand’s lighting design strongly emphasizes the tone and mood.
The cast continues to remain firmly grounded in their performance work.
Patient and resident Thomas (Sean Arbuckle) is gobsmacked by the news of the princess’s arrival. He lovingly recalls the British Royal Wedding of the then Prince Charles to Diana and her long wedding gown train. Thomas meets his shy and reticent new roommate, Andre (Davinder Malhi), who is deathly afraid of being at the hospice. Nurse Vera (Sophia Walker) is no-nonsense. She has a job to do and does her best to remain professional while not getting emotionally involved in the lives of her patients. Hospice volunteer Marjorie (Linda Kash) is Vera's opposite. Marjorie is cheerful and cheeky and wants to make people smile. Thomas’s estranged sister, Pauline (Laura Condlln), creates confusion and anger within her brother.
Once again, Andrew Kushnir directs with effusive compassion for the subject material.
The tremendous humanity of the piece has been deepened this time. These are very real people with genuine emotions. Playwright Green even includes the late Princess in this revelation. At one point, Diana removed her shoes while she spoke with Thomas. Although that might seem a bit odd, within the established context of the scene, it makes complete sense when the Princess does.
Sean Arbuckle’s performance carefully remains balanced in emotional intensity. He never ventures into histrionics as Thomas even when sometimes triggered in his estranged relationship with sister, Pauline (sharply played by Laura Condlln). Thomas continues to be biting, sarcastic, witty, and funny, with a slight touch of catty. His comic references to the film ‘Steel Magnolias’ and the television hit ‘The Golden Girls’ may seem dated; however, their underlying meanings still convey an element of truth in our twenty-first-century woke world.
Seeing the production six months later, Arbuckle this time reveals a strong sense of the fighter within Thomas. He wants to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ that poet Dylan Thomas had once written. When Thomas does rage against Pauline, it becomes a fine performance moment to watch Arbuckle and Condlln stand off in complete silence momentarily. The tension remains palpably thick, and oh, so good to experience.
As Diana, Katherine Gauthier keenly listens and gives her undivided attention to Thomas. When she is introduced to him, she slightly pauses at first, then smiles warmly, crosses to the bed and gently takes his hand and compassionately holds it. A heartfelt moment of riveting complete silence throughout the Baillie Theatre. Wonderful!
As Andre, Davinder Malhi offers an effective counterbalance to Arbuckle’s work. At first, Andre appears to want to wither away. However, that strong sense of Thomas wanting to “rage against the dying of the light” becomes subtly reflected in Malhi’s performance. A nice bit of unexpected humour from Andre in the second act momentarily reminds us that he is just as every bit cheeky as Thomas.
Sophia Walker and Linda Kash continue to remind us of the importance of healthcare. This time round, these terrific performers have, like Arbuckle, wisely chosen to deepen their work. Walker’s Vera remains committed to being of service to the patients at the hospice, but she’s human. The cost of healthcare on a personal level does become taxing and there are subtle moments where Walker shows that nursing remains challenging.
The same holds true for Kash’s Marjorie. She continues her selflessly admirable volunteer work because it’s important to remain positive in an environment where death reared its head consistently. Kash also selects those moments where she tugs at the audience’s heartstrings especially in the second act. And it’s powerful when she does.
Final Comments: In his Director’s Programme Note, Andrew Kushnir states how honoured he is to bring the story here.
Andrew, it was my honour to revisit Nick’s poignant work. I’m richer for having experienced this human connection story again which is sadly missing today in a world of people glued to screens and believing that is personal communication with others.
Running time: approximately two hours and thirty minutes with one interval/intermission.
‘Casey and Diana’ runs until February 11 in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Distillery District. For tickets, call 416-866-8666 or visit youngcentre.ca. To learn more about Soulpepper and the upcoming season, see soulpepper.ca.
‘Casey and Diana’ by Nick Green. The Toronto premiere presented by Soulpepper.
Originally produced by The Stratford Festival
Directed by Andrew Kushnir
Set & Costume Designer: Joshua Quinlan
Lighting Designer: Louise Guinand
Sound Designer & Composer: Debashis Sinha
Stage Manager: Michael Hart
Performers: Sean Arbuckle, Laura Condlln, Katherine Gauthier, Linda Kash, Davinder Malhi, Sophia Walker