Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Playwright bravely exposes herself in drama about decay and hope

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Sargent & Victor & Me was conceived as a celebration of a rough-and-tumble inner-city Winnipeg neighbourhood and its inhabitants, who must share their streets with drug dealers, gangbangers and prostitutes.

Debbie Patterson's affecting one-woman show, which Theatre Projects Manitoba premièred Thursday night, takes place in a food bank in the basement of the First Lutheran Church, where we are introduced to a cross-section of locals, many of whom you will instantly recognize: the upbeat, friendly pastor; the old-timer who remembers the good old days when it was a safe, family-friendly enclave; the seen-too-much cop-hater; the happy helper; the prim bigot who laments how the area has changed colour; and a 15-year-old aboriginal girl whose life has been a nightmare.

Only the latter truly demands continued attention. The rest are stock characters that could be speaking about any down-on-its-luck corner of the world.

It's the "& Me" part of the 90-minute (plus intermission) monologue that draws in the audience and creates something special. Patterson bravely leads a different tour, not of mean streets and avenues but of her body, also run-down -- in her case, as a result of multiple sclerosis. Rarely will you see an artist expose herself so personally and completely. The playwright/actor has come a long way from when she was too self-conscious to have anyone watch her awkwardly climb stairs.

Patterson reveals herself through the character of an angry, disabled food-bank worker named Gillian. As she struggles to drop food items into the hampers that surround her, she opens up about her legs, named after the female leads in the Tennessee Williams stage classic A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella is her workhorse right leg, while Blanche is the left, a the troublesome diva who has become useless.

Patterson puts on her brace and hobbles around the stage with a cane, occasionally sitting down at one of the numerous round tables to voice the words of another person she has invented, based on her interviews with the area's real denizens.

"I don't have MS; it has me," Gillian plainly says, and then goes on to describe her history with the chronic inflammatory disease from her initial diagnosis 15 years ago. She talks about her attempts to control the symptoms with drugs and promising treatments, but concludes that the only thing keeping her out of a wheelchair is her willpower. She is sad there won't be any more visits to favourite outdoor spots in Thunder Bay or the uneven grounds where Shakespeare in the Ruins performs in St. Norbert.

Running parallel to Gillian's regrets are the harrowing details of that teen named Theresa, who is the ultimate survivor. After moving into and out of countless group homes, she says she found herself on the street sniffing gas, turning tricks and being subjected to beatings and rapes by her drug dealer. Ultimately, she finds a family and a sense of belonging in the Gangster Crips, for which her initiation was to steal a gun.

Theresa's youthful resiliency seems to be a source of inspiration for Patterson as she contemplates an uncertain future, not unlike the core area around Sargent and Victor. If there is to be a resurrection for the neighbourhood, the helping hand will come from the people who live there.

Although nothing much happens onstage, director Arne MacPherson has Patterson (also his offstage partner) continuously moving among the tables and hampers, and that reflects how she moves from character to character. A change in voice and a subtle shift in posture is all it takes. She projects an ease that masks how hard she is working. Adding to the authenticity of the evening is an effective soundscape by John K. Samson and Christine Fellows.

In the end, the theatre celebration is more deserved for Patterson than Sargent and Victor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 G3

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