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Drama has brains, heart, humour

What would the local theatre scene do without Harry Nelken?

The white-haired actor is a stage mensch -- Winnipeg's go-to guy for creating older characters from a place of great honesty and openness.

He's terrific as usual in King's Park, a new drama by emerging local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff that opened Thursday at the Rachel Browne Theatre.

Nelken, who is in his 60s, plays Michael, an ultra-dedicated psychiatrist who heads the schizophrenia program at a teaching hospital.

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What would the local theatre scene do without Harry Nelken?

The white-haired actor is a stage mensch — Winnipeg's go-to guy for creating older characters from a place of great honesty and openness.

Harry Nelken, left, and Eric Blais each play multiple roles in local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff's ambitious work.

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO

Harry Nelken, left, and Eric Blais each play multiple roles in local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff's ambitious work.

He's terrific as usual in King's Park, a new drama by emerging local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff that opened Thursday at the Rachel Browne Theatre.

Nelken, who is in his 60s, plays Michael, an ultra-dedicated psychiatrist who heads the schizophrenia program at a teaching hospital.

The two-actor, 90-minute play is about work addiction. It traces what happens to a workaholic when his body and brain betray him — he's diagnosed with Parkinson's disease — and his lifelong mask of selfless accomplishment and control begins to slip.

On a stage that's empty save for two chairs, Nelken, director Chris Gerrard-Pinker and the playwright masterfully transport us to the hospital by having Michael read his daily work diary, hour by compartmentalized hour, off a clipboard.

The diary subjectively reveals Michael's compassion for his delusional — and often suicidal — patients, as well as the ways in which he numbs himself to their suffering and fails to care for himself or his marriage.

Nelken and Eric Blais, who looks about 30 years younger, fluidly shift among roles in the ambitious, intricate narrative, which some viewers will find disorienting. They both play Michael at various ages, as well as his wife and others. At times, they simultaneously play aspects of Michael.

Nelken gives the brainy production a heart and a grounded body. He's especially poignant as Michael's brusque, defeated father, depicted in flashbacks in his wheelchair at King's Park, a psychiatric hospital where he was confined for most of his life.

In memories within flashbacks, we learn of the father's heartbreaking depression and suicide attempt when his children were young. Michael's mother also tried suicide. Michael grew up parentless in a group home.

The psychiatrist, then, is the classic over-achieving "helping professional" who can't outwit his own legacy of abandonment and pain. When his marriage crumbles and he is called to testify at an inquest after unwisely discharging a patient, Michael hits bottom. The part of the play in which his depression echoes his dad's is deeply affecting.

Thau-Eleff, the 30-year-old son of a Winnipeg psychiatrist, has taken a great step forward since his last play, which was an awkward, self-conscious mix of parody and drama.

Here, he recognizes that the serious subject matter needs leavening. But the recurring appearance of a superhero alter-ego named Psychotherapy Man, in scenes stylized like comic books, becomes an over-extended metaphor that feels forced.

A small recurring metaphor is touchingly perfect by comparison: the wheelchair-bound father who was never there for his son keeps gruffly asking him, "Shift me up in the chair."

Thau-Eleff attempts a great deal here, and a lot of it works. Michael is a fully drawn character, sympathetic and flawed. His belief that he is indispensable at work and his patterns of self-delusion will be wrenchingly familiar to many.

In the end, though, his breakthrough is too fast and too complete. Real-life recovery is much less like a superhero doffing his disguise.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

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