Habitat opens with the sound of a woman's laboured, raspy breathing.
It's a death rattle. This mother in her 40s is about to expire from cancer.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Raine (Megan Herkert), just wants to get her hands on Mom's bank card so she can buy some jeans. "I don't even have anything to wear to your funeral," gripes the appallingly selfish teen.
The kid ditches her mom with "See you when I see you." The play asks, with compassion for every viewpoint, why it's so difficult for us to "see" -- that is, understand, value and accept.
The next time we meet the Raine, she's been placed in a group home for troubled teens that's just opened on Maple View Lanes, an exclusive street populated by wealthy professionals.
Kudos to the small but discerning company Theatre by the River for mounting the first local production of this layered, thoughtful 2001 work by Toronto dramatist Judith Thompson (The Crackwalker, White Biting Dog).
The five-actor Habitat opened Thursday in the intimate upstairs space at Aqua Books. It's presented in blackout scenes effectively connected by moody cello interludes played by Natanielle Felicitas.
The fringe-like venue is far from ideal in terms of sightlines. But director Arne MacPherson makes skilful use of the long, shallow performing space so our imaginations fill in two homes and a park, as well as unseen characters.
Habitat is built around the battle between a social worker who is passionately determined to give neglected teens a family-like home, and intolerant, change-resistant neighbours who fear crime and lowered property values.
But on a more profound level, it's about family, especially the primal, complex relationships between mothers and children -- lifelong dances of adoration, criticism, contempt, disappointment, guilt, care-giving and misunderstanding.
Thompson, a mother of five, has penned dialogues and monologues that are stunningly honest about mother-child psychology.
Margaret (Carolyn Gray) is an elderly widow on the street. Her daughter Janet (Lisa Nelson) is raising her own kids a few doors away. There's all sorts of baggage here, with Margaret disapproving of Janet's feminism and law career, and Janet agreeing to lead a lawsuit against the group home to win her "mummy's" approval. Meanwhile, Margaret and the angry Raine form a surrogate mom-daughter bond.
In a powerful, taboo-smashing monologue that would probably only be written by a female playwright, Janet confesses that as her children became pre-teens, she began to dislike them.
Over at the group home, gay social worker Lewis (Matt TenBruggencate) makes phone calls to his own mom and reveals in a wrenching monologue the long-ago incident that compels him to nurture unwanted kids.
Sparkle (Brent Hirose), a morally hollow teen, is the sad example of the damage that results from a lack of a primary bond.
Thompson includes a few heavy-handed political speeches and overdoes her attempt to make Maple View Lanes a microcosm for human-rights issues, unwisely drawing analogies to Nazi Germany.
But each character emerges as a rounded, flawed human being. The actors rise to the work's challenge. TenBruggencate is the standout, giving the social worker a chipper exterior and a haunted, aching, rage-filled interior.
Thompson's poetic images are rich and rewarding, particularly the use of breathing as a sustained metaphor.
As worried parents we check on our babies' breathing; as adult children we keep vigil as our mothers breathe into life's final passage.
The play circles back to place Raine at her mom's bedside once again. The journey is well worth taking.