This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
How many times are we told that, however bad things get for us, there is always someone worse off? That thought could be going through Harrison’s head when, in the middle of a suicide attempt, his home is broken into and the intruder turns out to be a 14-year-old girl in a wheelchair, suffering from cerebral palsy. This encounter between an able-bodied defeatist and a physically handicapped striver is the starting point for Athena Stevens’ 80-minute play, receiving its World Premiere here. The writer is herself a cerebral palsy sufferer and she also takes on the role of Katherine, the intruder, playing her as a strong-willed young lady who knows that the road to achieving her goals in life is littered with obstacles, of which her disability is just one. The setting is Chicago over an 18 year period that takes in Clinton, Bush, Obama and the emergence of Trump. Time is established by a lightweight radio presenter commenting on world events between scenes. In 1998, Katherine is a student at the school where Harrison teaches Maths; she is bright but left in the slow stream because of her disability. She is drawn to him following an act of kindness towards her that he does not even remember. Tim Beckmann’s Harrison has a forlorn look, but helping Katherine provides him with a fresh sense of purpose. At the age of 33, he has given up on his ambitions to become an architect and allowed his marriage to fail without putting up a fight. His willingness to turn back when faced with challenges means that he is settling for a life of mediocrity. something that would be unthinkable to Katherine. The teacher’s assertion that “…in life there is a gap between expectation and reality” is rejected by the pupil absolutely. Katherine’s determination to surmount obstacles is mirrored by Stevens’ refusal to settle for easy options in her writing. She could have courted sympathy for Katherine by making her a great deal more likeable. She could have let the play take its seemingly natural course towards becoming a cosy romantic comedy. She does neither and the result is a remarkable final third that is both candid and brave. If the play has a weakness, it is that Stevens does not explore the emotional connection between Harrison and Katherine more thoroughly and a resulting lack of warmth occasionally makes the dialogue come across like part of a lifestyle lecture rather than a drama. However, she never shirks from tackling harsh realities when giving stark reminders of Katherine’s vulnerability, not only as a handicapped person, but as a woman in a male-dominated world. Teacher/student role reversal stories are not unfamiliar, but this one is marked out as different by its refreshing honesty and Alex Sims’ steady production is at its strongest when making the audience uncomfortable. The play never looks for the feel good factor, but, by promoting a “bottle half full” philosophy, its writer is offering inspiration not only to the disabled, but to us all.
Performance date: 19 April 2016