This past Friday we took in the first offering of Sage Theatre’s 10th season. The company has elected to restage for their 10th anniversary, the inaugural play with which Sage Theatre was launched, Judith Thompson’s The Lion in the Streets.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the Pumphouse Theatre on a drizzly evening as the dark was settling in, I noticed that the heavy black shutters, which had always covered the windows of the small brick building nestled amongst the trees, had been opened. Once inside, I was floored by the dramatic structural changes that had taken place inside the tiny theatre. Gone was a stage wall, exposing a stairwell open to the basement of the building and the fire doors leading out to the grounds. The stage, such as it was, featured dustbins, assembled around the stairwell, piled with an old bicycle and assorted rubble, a small raised platform littered with newspapers at the opposite end of the room, and an open stretch with some rough-hewn wooden boxes occupying the spaces between the two tiers of seats which lined the walls and faced each other.
In the background we could hear the creaking and low mechanical squealing of a subway train. It was a bleak setting for what proved to be a very difficult play to watch.
The Lion in the Streets is not a linear tale. Rather, it is a series of vignettes often featuring recurring characters and loosely linked by the character of Isobel. Isobel is a scared and disheveled, but feisty young Portuguese girl, whom we first see being tormented by a group of bullies, who burst up out of the basement, race loudly up the stairs and crash through the fire doors into the grounds, where through the unshuttered windows we see them chase one another wildly before returning into the theatre proper. It is one of the more unique play openings that I have seen.
Jennie Esdale’s Isobel is sweet and confused, as she addresses the audience pleadingly, looking for a helping hand to help her find her way home. When she comes to the realization, quite early on in the play, that she is in fact dead, was murdered 17 years earlier, she is heartbreaking in her desperation and fear and confusion. And yet, she is the bright light amongst the damaged individuals that populate this often brutal existence.
The Lion in the Streets is very discomforting to watch, with its scenes of humiliation and brutality and oppression. The desperate public strip-tease performed by a woman trying to lure back home her cheating husband, the brutalization of a wheel-chair bound woman, a gut-wrenching admission about the pleasure of a rape which a man forces out of his fiancé, are all very difficult to endure, and you can only imagine the toll those performances must have taken upon the actors. But amongst the raw brutality and darkness, there shine little glimpses of humanity and hope – words of forgiveness to a guilt-ridden priest, hard-nosed but loving advice to a dying woman, and always, Isobel.
The Lion in the Streets is at times quite frightening, and at other times very distressing, and it is not a play that one walks away from with a light heart, but with its glimpses of humanity amongst the rubble, it is unforgettable.