Fine Books for a Plague Year

Like many of you, I’ve spent hours with my nose in a book during these plague months; witness the picture. Sadly, I did not keep notes as I read. I just stacked the books in order of reading with the intent to make comment later. Not quite good enough, methinks. Hence, as one moves down the page, the comments become rather sparse. A disclaimer here—four books, Happily Ever Older, Tamarind Sky, WhyBirds Sing, and Afterlife Crisis came to me as ARCs from their respective publishers. Two of these were e-books (Tamarind Sky, and Happily Ever Older) and because of that they are not captured in the photo.

When Luciana Ricciutelli asked me to blurb Thelma Wheatley’s latest book, Tamarind Sky, I was honored. I became a fan of Thelma’s writing with her book And Neither Have I Wings To Fly. Tamarind Sky is a master class in the social history of forgotten yet recent times. In a tale that centres on family love and the immigrant experience, Wheatley has skillfully captured the searing ugliness of racism in Ontario (1967-1989) and Ceylon (1947-1956). Her portrayals of time and place on each continent are riveting. Tamarind Sky is a compelling read about colonialism, its aftermath, and the human spirit’s will to survive and overcome. (Note the book mark on which my blurb is quoted. Some of you may recall, that I only believed I was a ‘real’ author, when I had my book Autumn’s Grace AND the book mark in hand. I confessed that level of neediness to my editor, Luciana, at the Toronto launch, and she laughed. Luciana died this past December; Thelma’s bookmark feels like it was a departing gift—delivered with a wink.)

Happily Ever Older is essential reading for anyone who hopes to grow old and to do so with dignity. Instead of seniors’ housing that resembles warehouses for storage, think greenhouses for growth. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift that Moira Welsh depicts through innovative housing models that have launched across North America and in the Netherlands.  Each of them defeats the three plagues of old age: loneliness, boredom, and helplessness. But as a society, we will succumb if we don’t act now. Between 2019 and 2050, the cost of long term care housing will triple. To combat that future, we need healthier models and better government policies with a laser focus: supporting seniors’ independence. Only then might we live happily ever older. (Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star. )

Why Birds Sing is a delightful novel that seamlessly blends commentary about opera, architecture, avian husbandry, health care, and whistling. It’s an unlikely tale of friendship, hope, and love that begins when a flamed-out opera singer, her ailing brother-in-law, and his African Gray parrot meet up with a clutch of siffleurs who call themselves the Warblers. I enjoyed it.

Afterlife Crisis by Randal Graham is a madcap and frenetic romp through an everchanging fantasy of future Detroit. Our guide for this adventure is Rhinnick Feynman, a character who maintains his equilibrium through a series of misadventures. He has been gifted with remembering how things once were while everyone around him is subject to forgetting. His quest is to determine why this is so.

It’s not often that a book makes me laugh aloud, but this one did, many times. I imagined Feynman navigating his strange world with a GoPro strapped to his forehead while a chip embedded in his brain recorded his thought processes. And with that chip, he gives us access to the literature, science, mythology, and history that underpins his world view. Feynman sprinkles clichés as liberally as one would salt potatoes and uses arcane words to entertaining effect.  And his parallels are—unparalleled. Here’s a sample of the ones that made me snort with surprise and delight: “sensory gumbo,” the pace of “a unionized snail,” and “a pack of wild piranha meeting up with an unsuspecting knot of bathers.” Afterlife Crisis is unadulterated fun; its author is a master of comedy.

Becoming by Michelle Obama was loaned to me back in the winter of 2020. It sat on my bureau in that category of  ‘not likely to read because it’s a celebrity memoir, but I don’t want to be rude to the loaner, so I’ll return it in six months or so.’ All I can say is that it’s a good thing I held on to it. I began reading it to my eighty-seven-year-old friend who lives in a seniors’ residence. We haven’t been able to visit in-person because of various COVID-19 restrictions, so we began our own private book club in November. Every day we read for an hour over FaceTime. Becoming gave us insights into race, poverty and the US political system that astonished us. Our current selection is The Audacity of Hope. It’s giving us each a deep appreciation of a fine former president.

Nora Ephron’s essays were the books that started my eighty-seven-year-old friend and me on our private book club venture. We laughed a lot. I can identify with Ephron’s neuroses.

Famous Last Words is a book I’ve read five or six times. It always amazes me. Timothy Findley ranks as my all-time favourite Canadian author. (I’ve re-read Pilgrim and Not Wanted on the Voyage at least twice.)

Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson was a delight. Doug worked with authors whose books line my library shelves. As a result I’ll be re-reading Monro, Macleod, and McLennan.

The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro is a book that I missed when it came out in 2006. Reading it felt like visiting with an old friend. Munro writes about a community and way of life that I know well; my mother’s family came from nearby Bruce County.

The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscilla Uppal is extraordinary. This past fall, on a hike with some fellow authors, I described it as luminescent, only to find as I sought the URL that other reviewers had used the same descriptor. We lost Ms. Uppal to cancer in 2018. I learned that sad fact when midway through the book, I went looking for her other works. The knowledge of her death made the remaining chapters all the more poignant.

The Pull Of The Stars by Emma Donoghue immersed me in a make-shift maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. My sleeves were figuratively rolled up prepared to help with deliveries. Her descriptions of Dublin under a pandemic siege made me grateful to have been born decades later.

Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker prize in 2019. It’s a superb book about the web of relationships in women’s lives, and how they come to be shaped through sexuality, community, race and history. I loved the complexity and the minutiae of this book. The Testaments was a co-winner of the 2019 prize. It too is excellent—very different from Girl, Woman, Other. I read it in 2019, so it didn’t qualify for the attached photo.

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a masterpiece of imaginative storytelling.  It begins as the protagonist’s body has just been dumped in a rubbish bin just outside Istanbul. And as her brain begins to shut down, she begins to weave the story of her life. It’s a fascinating tale that had me gripped from beginning to end. The Forty Rules of Love is equally imaginative and could not be more different. It’s a tale imbued with Sufi wisdom that spans two cultures, over seven centuries. Both of these books are on my ‘to re-read’ list.  I will happily read any new novel that Shafak produces.

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s true; I hadn’t read Toni Morrison until I read A Mercy. My only excuse is that she was not Canadian. Why then, you might ask, would I have read Shafak, a Turkish-British author? And the simple answer is that 10 minutes and 38 seconds was a gift. But I went looking for Toni Morrison. References to her kept popping up at a seminar I attended in San Miguel last winter. In A Mercy, Morrison has made the tensions of seventeenth-century colonial America —race, religion and class—come to life as she explores the plight of a little black girl sold into the household of an Anglo-Dutch trader.  This book, too, will be on my ‘to re-read’ list.

I have now started on what will become a new stack of books. I’ve just finished The Dutch House and am reading The Jane Austen Society. I’m looking forward to The Glass Hotel, Constant Nobody, and Nothing The Same, Everything Haunted. And my commitment to readers of this blog is that I will take notes as I go along —not wait until months later.

Happy reading while we wait to be vaccinated!

Trash the Gloves

It’s the uncertainty about this COVID-19 virus that gnaws at my soul. And it’s the ignorance of others that makes me want to snap at anyone who blows their nose and then touches a communal condiment. I want to snarl: Are you trying to kill me and everyone else?

The uncertainty is reducing me to shreds. I’m no longer whole and resilient. Little things are becoming big. Is the bellyache a result of nerves? Or is it from an appendix about to burst? Are the inflamed and itchy spots on my body from a benign mosquito? Or have I been bitten by one of the two species of poisonous spiders in this country? And because the spots have not reduced after forty-eight hours, and have a weeping crusted centre, what are the chances of developing necrotizing fasciitis? A little knowledge can be dangerous in uncertain times. And a trip to the hospital could put me in greater peril than sitting here with my worry.

I’ve moved into vigilante mode on infection control. My husband understands, not because of my relentless reminders over the years, but from an episode of Scrubs. It was one of the best illustrations I have seen of what happens when people do not think through their responsibility to protect others. In this particular episode, whenever a character touched another person or object, without first washing their hands, a glowing green spot was superimposed on the image. The result? A trail of fluorescent green wound its way through hallways, along IV poles, into patient rooms, onto meal trays, and throughout the hospital. People died.

I was reminded of that episode recently when our server came to the table and handed us our menus. What caught my eye was her vinyl gloves, which she wore bunched at each wrist with beaded elastic bracelets. The resulting frill was somewhat fetching, but to this cynical eye, it was a clear message that her gloves were not coming off until the end of her shift. When I asked who was being protected by her gloves, she indicated that she was. I then asked, “What about me?”
She looked surprised. I gestured to the menus and said, “These have germs.”
Once again, she looked surprised.
“Will you wash your hands when you take your gloves off?”
“Of course,” she assured me. “They would be dirty.”
“What will you do to protect me between now and taking your gloves off?”
Her plan, she said, was to wash her gloved hands with soap and water or with antiseptic gel.
Did that happen?
My husband said, “Yes. Once.” He saw her washing her gloved hands as he headed to the bathroom. However, I saw no evidence that she did so as she handled cutlery and folded it into napkins. The experience made my decision for the next few weeks: I will prepare our food; we will dine at home.

Is there an upside to COVID-19? I think so.

I grew up at a time when mothers were insistent on hand-washing before meal preparation, before consumption of food, and after blowing of noses. These same mothers washed and rinsed dishes in hot water, and as part of their weekly housework, they wiped doorknobs with diluted bleach. These women understood “Germ Theory” at a practical level. Their approach to maintain the health of their families was primary prevention: Protect yourself AND protect others.

But, gloves isolate us from the intimacy of touch, and it’s that intimacy that, at a basic level, reminds us to wash our hands. I could understand gloves if the people wearing them had no access to soap or hand sanitizer. But I fear that the motivation at worst is ‘protect myself and to Hell with others.’ When I see anyone going about their business outside a hospital wearing gloves, I do not feel safe.

I’ve thought about health, safety and infectious diseases for decades— ever since my first encounter with a patient who unbeknownst to me had active TB. I was the first responder at her cardiac arrest and administered CPR. As a result, I was on medication for a year, and my awareness of infection control was forever changed. I don’t shake hands at church, and I’ve been known to grab the arm of someone who is about to double-dip. Amongst friends, my cautions have been a running joke; with my sons, I’m an embarrassment.

Two earlier versions of coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, did not result in pandemic management measures. Borders stayed open; schools did not close, and people commuted to their workplaces. I suspect that it was a small pool of the population whose behaviours changed forever: our health care workers, and the families and friends of the people who became ill. But the upside of our global experience with COVID-19 may well change personal behaviour.

Are more of us are now aware of the ‘fluorescent-green’ bio-trail that tracks our movements when we do not wash our hands. I think so.

Do more of us understand that we can spread a virus before we have ourselves developed symptoms? I hope so.

If each of us, to our very core, recognized our civic responsibility to protect ourselves AND to protect others, our bio-trails would become bio-dots. They would stop at the sink. The result would be that we would have protected ourselves AND protected others.

As for COVID-19 and it’s spread, I would say, “Trash the gloves; wash your hands; and Namaste—May the goodness in me greet the goodness in you.”

Let’s take care of ourselves, and each other.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

Wash Your Hands—Please!

Coronavirus, and its persistence, has reminded me of a blog post I wrote in 2018. I was frustrated and angry. A magazine that reaches hundreds of thousands of households had arrived in the mail with the advice to wash your hands with soap and water at least five times per day to prevent the spread of infections.

“Five times per day?” I read aloud. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

My husband, in the midst of a winter cold, harrumphed, “Fifty’s more like it!”

Tell a mom with two children under the age of four who has wiped two noses and two bums before she has sipped her first-morning coffee that she should wash her hands five times per day. “That’s ridiculous!” she’ll say. “We’d all be sick all the time!”

Wash your hands at least five times per day? Really? Tell that to the husband of a woman who is immunocompromised. “How irresponsible!” he’ll say. “If I did that, I could kill her!”

Let me suggest then how you can keep your family safe, your friends and workmates safe, and yourself safe.

If you’re preparing food, wash your hands.

About to eat? Wash your hands.

Blown your nose? Wash your hands.

Wiped your bum? Wash your hands.

Wiped someone else’s nose or bum? Wash your hands.

And always wash your hands before you rub your eyes, pick your nose, or bite your fingernails.

Let's give everyone a [clean] hand - from Global Handwashing Day 2020
Global Handwashing Day 2020

For a single, healthy individual who eats three squares a day and who toilets five times per day, that’s eleven handwashings.  If we give this person a winter cold, which necessitates nose-blowing every half-hour, then add thirty handwashings. That brings us to a low estimate of eleven handwashings or six more than the recommended “at least five,” and a high of forty-one, or just nine handwashings shy of my ailing husband’s estimate.  Which just goes to show that any number as a recommendation for hand-washing frequency is meaningless.

Let the situation be your guide. So at the very least…wash your hands BEFORE preparing and eating food; wash your hands AFTER wiping any nose or bum, and wash your hands BEFORE touching anyone’s face.*

And if you still want to talk numbers, then count out twenty seconds the next time you wash your hands. That’s about how long it should take you to hum the Happy Birthday song from beginning to end, TWICE.

* For more indications, see When & How to Wash Your Hands.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

And btw, Bonnie thinks everyday should be Global Handwashing Day.

Hello Again!

This theatre buff cannot help herself: I must comment. I miss the experience of writing about the plays I have seen. The reality is that the revision of this current manuscript requires more creativity than I had expected. I’m trying to develop my ability to show more and tell less. Time is too scarce to write reviews. Having said that, what I’m about to do in the next few paragraphs is to tell you, nay urge you, to take yourself to the theatre. There are some spectacular plays on stage at both Shaw and Stratford this summer.

My absolute favourite is Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell. It’s a marathon performance of Olympian theatrical skill. Gray Powell is onstage throughout the entire performance, and I swear he speaks two-thirds of the lines uttered. When I have the script in hand I will do a count.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a fine piece set in the 1600s. It’s a tale of unrequited love, and it is brilliantly performed with Tom Rooney in the lead role. Kate Hennig of the Stratford trilogy translated and adapted this show.

Mother’s Daughter closes the circle on the story Kate Hennig opened with The Last Wife. While The Virgin Queen addressed the early days of Queen Elizabeth I, Mother’s Daughter answers questions about Mary, the first of the two queens spawned by Henry VIII. It’s well-told; I was engaged.

Even though I have given up on most musicals (Come From Away, Billy Elliott, and The Last Ship being recent exceptions) Brigadoon was lovely. It’s romantic and the music is hummable. I was enchanted with the notion of time travel.

The Ladykillers was frenetic fun with split-second timing.

And finally, anyone who has ever thought their family of origin was dysfunctional will appreciate the complexity of The Glass Menagerie. For some time, I have admired the range and skill of Julia Course and Andre Sills. They each have an extraordinary skill to breathe life and nuance into challenging characters.

Mad Dog – A Review

Mad Dog, by Kelly Watt, is a tale that both captivated and terrified me. The writing is exquisite. Ontario summers, circa 1960, evoke the scent of apple orchards, the itchiness of sand inside a bathing suit, and windblown rides in the back of a Bonneville. Then there’s the experience of tentative first-time explorations of sexual arousal—the curiosity, the thrill, and the fun.

But there is a memory in this book, and it is the memories that unsettle the young protagonist. She can’t place them, yet they feel real. They are thematic and become more layered and more disturbing as summer slips into autumn.

Within the first few pages, this reader’s sense of foreboding was on full alert. I wanted to scoop up the protagonist and take her out of harm’s way. But then I too was lulled by the heat, the nuzzling of bees in blossoms and the sense of being safe in Canada while radio news relayed civil unrest and police brutality in the USA. 

In closing, I will say this: the canine in this story is not the mad dog. And when you read this book, do so with the lights on.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope, humour, and knowledge, despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.

A Theatre Buff Says Good-bye For Now

This theatre buff has a host of performances lined up for the summer, but there is a hitch to the review process: I’m in a time crunch and could not be happier.


Some of you will recall that I started to comment on plays in November, 2015. It was an intentional activity meant to reconnect neural circuits eleven months after the first of two concussions, and it was an important therapy. The writing forced me to make sense of notes written in the dark, to remember details, and then to coherently describe a performance. The reviews, and I use that term with reservation now, boosted my confidence: even though I could not create, I was able to describe.

Twenty-five months after Concussion #1 (January 2017) my characters returned: they had been AWOL since December 2014. For the next nine months I created like a possessed woman, and I note as I review blog posts that I did not publish as many reviews during that time. Concussion #2 struck in October 2017. Creativity, once again, went AWOL but the ability to describe remained; I resumed the ‘therapy’ of writing about the plays I had seen.

Theatre was a life buoy during these difficult months and years. Not only could I not create, I could not read, and when I did read I could not remember what I had read. Theatre took me out of the terror I experienced each day. It offered an alternate universe, the one that I have encountered when I become totally absorbed by a book. The morning after a production, when I sat down to my keyboard, the performance from the previous night grounded me. I could see it; I could feel it; I could describe it.

So, what does this preamble have to do with theatre reviews? It’s my way of saying “Thank you and Good-bye!” My muse returned this March; I’m both grateful and thrilled. I began a new manuscript that addresses literacy. It’s fiction. I also revised the second manuscript on aging. This latter one has just come back from my editor and there is more work to do. Time set aside for the keyboard is now strictly reserved for creation and revision.

Since March I have seen a few plays that I would highly recommend: Come From Away, Billy Elliott, Rope, and Waitress. From now on, my recommendations will come via Facebook (Bonnie Lendrum) and Instagram (Bonnieleal). As I promised at the outset of this blog,I will only recommend plays that have absolutely engaged me.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read reviews over the past four years. It is my hope that you have come to enjoy theatre as much as I do.

An Avid Reader Comments

One of the gifts I have received from readers is their comments and their reviews on Amazon, Indigo and Goodreads. Hence, I hereby apologize to all the authors I have read over the past four years; I have failed to review your books. During that period, two concussions interfered with both reading and writing. And when I had stretches where I could do both, I chose to work on my manuscript and comment on theatre. Today I will make up, in part, for lost time.

For those of you who read my blog, A Theatre Buff Reviews, you will know that I comment rather than formally review (and that makes me think I should call the blog A Theatre Buff Comments!).  I do that for a few reasons:

  • I only comment on theatre I have enjoyed and would urge others to see;
  • My comments are a thank you to the playwrights, actors and producers whose work has given me pleasure. 
  • If I were to monetize my site, which I will not do, I would be obliged to write a formal review. A comment is my way of recognising the excellence I have encountered.

I propose in this piece, and subsequent ones, to comment on books in a similar vein. Many of these comments will be brief because there have been several months between the reading and the writing.

While each of the books I comment on is different one from the other, they are similar in that the author writes from a perspective of passionate engagement with an issue that exists in the world. And I like that. If your reading preferences lean toward brain candy, there will be none here. Even though the books are fiction, I came away from each of them with a deep awareness and understanding of the issue that compelled the author to put fingers to keyboard.

Over the past few months, there were books that stood out:

The Left Handed Dinner Party by Myrl Coulter is a compilation of linked short stories. Each is crisply written and emotionally evocative. The characters feel familiar, like the family we have known forever or the friendships we have maintained for decades. There are the stories we hide and the stories we share. Coulter has revealed all.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews is an imagined two-day conversation amongst a group of Mennonite women who have been the victims of the Bolivian “ghost” rapes. The women must decide one of three options: do nothing; stay and fight; leave. Their courage in the face of their constraints is formidable.

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement explores drug culture in Mexico. Through the eyes of a young country girl, Ladydi, Clement exposes the underbelly of violence, prostitution, and gun traffic. Clements draws her characters and her settings with exquisite care.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement explores the traffic in guns from the USA to Mexico. Clement has chosen to tell her story through Pearl, a young girl who lives with her mother in a car on the edge of a trailer park. Pearl is too young to be judgemental and still young enough to be curious about everything. Her resilience is her salvation.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyen is an epic tale of a young slave who was born with a “ring of luck around [his] neck.” It’s a story about adventure, risk, love, survival, and betrayal told as historical fiction. If it were not such a doorstopper of a novel, I would reread it in a heartbeat.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyen follows a quartet of black jazz musicians during the early period of the Second World War, in Germany, when it was not safe to play jazz or to be black. The story is a recounting of that period, decades later, by one of the musicians. It’s a tale of artistry, craft, desperation, hope, and reconciliation. I have returned to this book to re-read sections, and may re-read the entire book.

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden is told through two primary characters: a middle-aged man who has been left in a coma and his twenty-something niece who comes to visit him in hospital. Boyden takes us through terrain that most of us will not encounter—the northern woods that are only accessible by bush plane or canoe, life on a reservation, photo shoots in Montreal and celebrity life in New York City. It’s a story that explores the glamour and the grief associated with the cross border traffic in drugs. If you have read Orenda, Through Black Spruce is a very different, but equally compelling book.

Nuala by Kimmy Beach is a fable. Beach has created a society where giant wooden puppets that come to awareness and are capable of “think-talk” are revered. Flesh and blood people are their servants who create the movement and who teach the puppet. The fable is thought provoking to say the least; its messages are not explicit. My take-away is that Nuala is an exploration of all consuming love and adoration, caregiver exhaustion, class tension (people who think vs. people who do), and master-student rivalry. Nuala is beautifully crafted.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is unbridled, irreverent, and entertaining. It is set in a dystopian near-future with economic conditions not too different from our current times. The principal characters, a husband and wife, trade their dispirited existence of living in their car for a lifelong commitment to a designed community. It’s the assurance of shelter, food and clothing that seals the deal. However, to quote W.D. Gilbert “Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.” Atwood’s has created an alternate universe that her characters willingly enter, and then with considerable creativity, attempt to leave. Enjoy!

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, a story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.

Next To Normal Offers Hope

Mirvish’s production of Next To Normal is a poignant and thoughtful depiction of mental illness. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010  for its creative team, Brian Yorker and Tom Kitt. Next To Normal is a musical which works extraordinarily well. I think it’s because many of the pieces are done in a fugue-like manner, with two or more interweaving voices. The complexity and richness of the music and lyrics acts as a counterpoint to the set which is stark, yet elegant. It transitions between the home of two architects, and a psychiatrist’s office/clinic. The back wall which is paneled with translucent screens signals transitions in space and mood as its colour changes. It’s very effective.

Ma-Anne Dionisio & Brandon Antonio. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The story introduces us to a family in which the wife and mother, Diana (Ma-Anne Dionisio), has had recurring encounters with mental illness since the birth of their daughter, Natalie (Stephanie Sy) sixteen years ago. The husband and father, Dan (Troy Adams), is both stalwart and anxious. The only family member who has an apparently healthy relationship with Diana is the son, Gabe (Brandon Antonio). The interactions between these two are typical of a cavalier teenage boy and his worried mother. We understand more about their relationship on the night of Gabe’s eighteenth birthday, when Natalie brings her new boyfriend (Nathan Carrol) to the family dinner table. It’s a plot churning moment to say the least. The acting is intense and on point at all times. Louise Pitre as Doctor Madden has a smaller but by no means lesser part. She’s a figurative (and in the play…literal) rock star of a psychiatrist who guides Diana and Dan through treatment options. 

While this description of an evening’s entertainment may sound grim, the play is anything but that. It offers hope. And that’s important when we consider that one on five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. The reality is that few people escape the grief of mental illness whether by affliction or association. 

Next To Normal is a play about a family who may never achieve ‘normal’, but it is a family who will be content to live as close to normal as they can. The night I attended, the audience gave this performance a standing ovation. It’s perhaps the second I have seen in my seven years of attending Off Mirvish productions.

Next To Normal is at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto until May 19, 2019

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.

Review: The Last Ship

Captains of industry and those who hail from the landed gentry are not likely to enjoy The Last Ship as much as we who carry the memories of a ship’s millwright in our DNA. While the former may squirm, the latter may experience a thrum, as I did, in those ancient cells. The call was visceral and emotional.

The Last Ship is a musical that explores the demise of the shipyards in Tyneside in the late 1980s. If musical and demise of industry sound like an oxymoron, I understand. But think of Come From Away and 911. Artistry, compassion, and music can surmount loss and grief. And that is exactly what happens in The Last Ship.

Sting and the cast of THE LAST SHIP – Toronto Production 2019.
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.

There are three strands to this play that covers a span of seventeen years. There’s the story of a ship’s foreman, Jackie White, (Sting) who keeps a rough and tumble crew of skilled craftsmen (millwright’s, carpenters etc.) towing the line while his wife, Peggy White, (Jackie Morrison) a Registered Nurse bandages up the men’s scraps and breaks, and hands out pills which will never touch the core of what is killing them—mesothelioma. Then there are two high school sweethearts Meg Dawson (Francis McNamee), a smart young thing who is writing her ‘O’ levels with a view to becoming a lawyer or doctor, and Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Saville) who cannot bear to sign up for work in the yards. Gideon leaves and returns seventeen years later. And finally, there is the story of work—the meaning of craftsmen’s jobs that have been done by generations of forebears—the camaraderie of a tight-knit group who have known each other since infancy—and the implications for middle-aged workers and their community when work is taken away by global competition.

The set is extraordinary. The combination of set pieces, video, and overlaid screens can move the audience easily from the gates of the shipyard to the interiors of a pub or homes, alongside a blast furnace, and inside a chapel. And throughout there is the presence of the sea—its thunderous roar and its saltwater spray. The set lighting is exquisite. At one point, there is an image of the men inside the chapel that looks like an old master’s painting. The set and lighting designers deserve their due!

The score captured me from the beginning. There are the songs and their music which tell the shipyard story through reminiscence, sorrow, and better times. Then there are the foot-stomping rhythms which have the same effect on me as tabla drumming. They call me, and I hope you, to gather round and bear witness. The Last Ship pulls out of Toronto at the end of March. Get on board before it leaves!

The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until  Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Elf – The Musical

Mid-way through Theatre Aquarius’ performance of Elf –The Musical, I realized I could not stop smiling. There’s enough word-play to satisfy the adults with children in hand, and there’s choreography and singing that ranges from the comic to Gee-Wiz! How do they sing and dance, so well, at the same time?!

For Elf novices (which I was before this production), Elf is a love story, wrapped inside a lost and found story. It begins with Buddy the elf (Brent Thiessen) learning from Santa (Neil Barclay), that he is a human, and that his father who lives in New York City is on Santa’s ‘Naughty List’. Buddy does what any lost elf would do; he walks south for 3500 miles to find his father. Fortunately, when he arrives in NYC it’s Christmastime. Not only is he seasonally dressed in his elf clothing, but stores are also decorating and Santas are proliferating. His father, however, has not caught the spirit; he believes that “Christmas always gets in the way.” It becomes Buddy’s mission to help his father and other NewYorkers begin to care about Santa Claus. Without telling more, I will say, “and therein lies the love story.”

The show is supported by a set that combines AV backdrops with traditionally built pieces on flies. The observant, or perhaps obsessive, may have noted that in this production Santa’s sleigh is supposed to be powered by belief, but as we see Santa flying over Manhattan there are reindeer pulling the sleigh. The acting is not only superb, it’s a series of high energy triple-threat performances. And the tap-dancing hearkens back to movies from the 1930s and ’40s.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Theatre Aquarius’ production is Brent Thiessen’s smile. He radiated light, love, and goodwill, which is what the season is supposed to be about. Go see Elf with the whole family!

 Elf – The Musical is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until December 24, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices.