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'In Seven Days' by Jordi Mand. World Premiere of a comedy about death

A Co-production with Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. Now onstage at London's Grand Theatre

Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Mairi Babb and Ron Lea

Joe Szekeres

‘A commendable and smart world premiere that tackles life and death issues with grace, wit and dignity.’

Philip Akin shares in his Director’s Programme Note that ‘In Seven Days’ is a play of fine balance between people, between families and the seriousness of life and the laughter of that same life. One of the characters from the play states: “Sometimes things change when they change.”

Isn’t that the truth?

The valued principle of upholding the preciousness of life has now flipped upside down on its head in playwright Jordi Mand’s story. That sacred gift can now be terminated immediately and efficiently with the consent of any adult individual and supporting medical team. Heavy stuff to consider for a world premiere, whether one approves or disproves of the action.

The bottom line is: Does this delicate subject matter make for good theatre?

Under Director Philip Akin’s skillful hands, this wonderful ensemble cast tells Mand’s affecting story with grace, wit and dignity. The production never feels rushed in its pacing.

Set in present-day London, Ontario, thirty-year-old Rachel (Shaina Silver-Baird), a big-time successful Toronto lawyer, has returned home for Shabbat dinner to see her ill father, Sam (Ron Lea), who lives with his much younger girlfriend and partner Shelley (Mairi Babb). Rachel is very close to her father. Her personal life is in upheaval. She and her DJ boyfriend, Darren (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett), are estranged. He has moved out. Upon her arrival, Rachel brings six bags of poppy seed bagels, which sends Shelley into highly comical paranoia of frenzy because it’s her turn to bring snacks to temple. Very few people at the synagogue don’t care for the poppyseed bagels and prefer sesame seeds. Watching these two ladies bicker over the bagels' differences is a hilarious opening.

The story takes a serious turn when Sam enters. His health has deteriorated over the last few years. Sam has been in remission from cancer twice; however, he’s finding it more and more challenging to carry on because he’s in constant pain. He has chosen to die by medically assisted death in seven days. Even his dear friend and Rabbi Eli (Ralph Small) finds it difficult to talk to Sam about his choice.

‘In Seven Days’ confronts the audience with a serious question – do loved ones try to change the minds of those who have chosen to travel this path as Rachel does, or should the wishes of the ailing Sam be honoured?

Sean Mulchahy has created an extraordinary set design of the upscale living room in Sam and Shelley’s home, beautifully lit by designer Siobhán Sleath. Mulchahy has also selected appropriate clothing for each character, from Shelley’s designer-looking fashion to Darren’s DJ grunge t-shirt, torn jeans, and sneakers. Lyon Smith’s sound design is perfectly timed for a comical effect with telephones (yes, there is a landline in the kitchen) after Sam announces wanting to end his life.

When serious and complicated moments rear their heads (as they often do), it’s vital to maintain as much of a genuinely compassionate perspective as possible. Akin continues to underscore this reminder gently many times throughout the play.

At one point, a heated discussion ensues between Rachel and Shelley over her father’s care. One complication arises for Rachel: is Shelley only interested in Sam for what she can gain financially in this common-law relationship? That may sound harsh since personal emotions are running high, but it’s also a fair question for any family member to ask. Mairi Babb handles that moment with class and self-respect as Shelley, and the look on Shaina Silver-Baird’s face as Rachel indicates how genuinely touched she is with the response. Wonderful work.

This strong ensemble cast is the reason to see the production. They perform in believable synchronicity, listen to each other genuinely and respond believably. At the end of each scene, Siobhán Sleath places one of the characters in the spotlight, which I found visually appealing. That character has been most affected by events from that scene.

Thankfully, Ron Lea does not play Sam as curmudgeonly. Instead, his Sam heartrendingly shows gradual exhaustion in his physical stance on stage, and that’s not easy to do. At the top of the show, he walks with one cane, but as the seven days pass, the character saunters with two canes.

Lea’s Sam is gruff and point-blank. He either likes or dislikes a person, as there’s no in-between. Sam likes to call the shot even though he may be wrong periodically. Rachel’s mother died while she and Sam were separated, but they never divorced. For that reason, Sam calls himself a widower. Well, legally speaking, he is. At first, Sam never cared for Rachel’s estranged boyfriend, Darren, because he wasn’t Jewish. That drew a few giggles from people sitting around me, but there’s more behind Sam's feelings about Darren.

As Darren, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett is hesitant. He instinctively knows Sam doesn’t care for him because he’s not of the faith. Near the end of the play, that all changes. There is an amusing episode of ‘male bonding’ over a tub of ice cream shared between the two, where each begins to understand and accept the other for who he is. This moment does not become teary-eyed because, realistically, that’s not how men would behave. Instead, Lea and McMurtry-Howlett emanate tremendous respect for each other through their facial expressions. Once again, wonderful work to watch.

The religious faith perspective behind this touchy issue is bravely handled in Ralph Small’s Rabbi Eli, one of Sam’s oldest friends since childhood. As a religious leader in the faith, Small’s Eli is kind and sympathetic and genuinely wants what’s best for his friend. However, there is also the humane side. Eli and Sam are old friends. Eli tries hard to listen and accept his friend’s request, but it’s tough. Again, a top-notch stage moment of respectful male conversation between Small and Lea is strongly shown. The two keep their emotions in check as men do. However, I noticed Small possibly wiping a tear from his eye. Smartly handled if so because the reference is felt without emotional overkill.

There’s strength and resilience behind the two important women in Sam’s life. Shaina Silver-Baird’s Rachel loves her father dearly and only wants the best for him. She’s a fighter and wants Sam to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ as poet Dylan Thomas once wrote. Mairi Babb’s Shelley is every bit of a fighter who indeed reveals her strength, resilience and love for Sam. Babb’s Shelley is not a pushover, nevertheless. As mentioned earlier, that moment between the two women over the insinuation of a gold-digger becomes pure stage magic.

And Another Thought: I always believed the Hippocratic Oath by medical professionals is to prevent disease whenever possible with obligations to all human beings, those of sound mind and body, and the infirm.

‘In Seven Days’ alters this thinking. The subject material of medically assisted death charters into a world of more unknowns post-pandemic.

This is good theatre. If you get a chance to attend a talkback following the performance, I hope you walk away further enlightened about an issue in our country that will continue to pose challenges no matter what we may think.

Running time: approximately one hour and 45 minutes with no interval.

‘In Seven Days’ runs until March 2 on the Spriet Stage at The Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond Street, London. For tickets, or call the Box Office at (519) 672-8800.

IN SEVEN DAYS by Jordi Mand. The World Premiere
A Co-Production with Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company
Directed by Philip Akin
Set & Costume Design: Sean Mulchahy
Lighting Design: Siobhán Sleath
Sound Design: Lyon Smith
Religious Consultant: Rabbi Debra Dressler
Stage Manager: Suzanne McArthur

Performers: Mairi Babb, Ron Lea, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, Shaina Silver-Baird, Ralph Small

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