Written by Linda Griffiths
Directed by Simon Heath
Lighting Design by Andrea Lundy
Factory Theatre
January 3 to February 3

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Linda Griffiths' new play, chronic, masterfully captures the Zeitgeist with a healthy look at illness. Griffiths portrays our current obsession with wellness in the age of the virus as a constant state of negotiation between the neurotic and the prudent - legitimate caution versus hypochondriacal paranoia. Her principal character, Petra (Caroline Gillis), is a state of the art website designer who fusses and moans about everything; kissing, touching, being coughed on, homeopathy, naturopathy, various sexually transmitted diseases, toilet seats, Epstein-Barr, and colonic irrigation - you name it - Petra's worried about it. And with good reason because somewhere beneath the epidermal of us all - floating freely within the blood cells (be they red or white) - lurks the ever present virus - dormant now perhaps, but ready to spring to life when opportunity knocks.

The theatre of disease - a cheery topic that has been with us ever since Ibsen broke open a discussion of syphilis in Ghosts on the stage in 1881. What Ibsen did for the 19th century, Tony Kushner did for the 20th in his epic portrayal of an infected body politic, Angels in America. The French iconoclast, Antonin Artaud, went so far as to dedicate an entire chapter to the subject ("Theatre and the Plague") in his classic meditation, The Theatre and Its Double. And then, of course, there were those classic characters that thought they were sick (Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire) or wanted us to believe they were sick (Pirandello's Enrico IV).

What is clever about Griffith's play is that she has chosen a disease that is more difficult to define and detect - indeed it may not exist at all. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) has symptoms such as tiredness, upset stomach, and achy joints - everything aging boomers feel every day. Hey, am I sick? The doctor says no, well maybe yes, but probably not.

David Boechler's fine set design features a giant round bed with satin sheets as the center piece. The bed is seven pillows wide laid end to end and it seems obvious from the start that it is meant to hold more than one or two people. Behind it is a large, circular, pitre dish kind of construction that forms a giant headboard and seems to be covered by a translucent membrane of some sort. Behind that, is the back-lit, skulking, fuzzy, silhouette of a pajama clad, anthropomorphic virus (Eric Peterson). Mr. Peterson is wonderful as a Puck-like parasite in need of a host, and Pitra looks like the perfect opportunity if he can only insinuate himself inside.

Pitra's world revolves around her new age physician, Diane (Brooke Johnson), her hopeful but emotionally beleaguered boyfriend, Chris, played by J.D. Nicholsen, and her office co-workers - Amber (Holly Lewis) and Oscar (Graeme Somerville). The workplace is filled with all the aggressive enthusiasm and narcissism of .com capitalists who are on a roll and ready to conquer the world with the new information technology until suddenly it all simultaneously implodes when Pitra and the PCs come down with a virus at the same time. Peterson looks down at the crashed computer terminals and notes in a self-satisfied aside: "my cousin."

The first act moves right along and leaves us (appropriately) wanting to know how this whole mess is going to turn out. If there were a vaccine that playwrights could take that would ensure a vibrant, healthy second act, every play would have one. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical companies haven't invented it yet. But although the second act coughs and wheezes a bit, there is plenty there to enliven and maintain our interest so we don't get that flagging feeling. Much of this is due to careful direction by Simon Heath who knows when to let us have a breather before the next bout of neurosis sets in. With this production, Heath graduates to the main stage after working for several years in the smaller backspaces around town. He handles the challenge with assuredness and aplomb.

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