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Review: George F. Walker completes Bobby and Tina cycle on mixed note (Includes first-hand account)

Walker’s latest play, which opened at The Citadel in Toronto last night, continues the story of slacker Bobby (Wes Berger) and headstrong Tina (Sarah Murphy-Dyson), two former teen lovers who keep meeting at the same Cabbagetown-area park. But now, they’re in their late thirties and struggling with new problems in addition to some of the old ones. The acting is strong, and Ken Gass’ direction brings a lot of passion and vulnerability out of the players. But Walker’s script seems to lack focus at times, with diversions and repetition detracting from the stronger moments.

We first met this pair in Walker’s 1993 play Tough!, when they were nineteen and Bobby had just gotten Tina pregnant; later, in 2013’s Moss Park, they were struggling with parenthood two years later. While these earlier plays were meant for young-adult audiences, The Damage Done is clearly an adult dramedy about two thirty-somethings whose lives have run into dead ends, albeit of different kinds – and the themes have gotten darker, too, with mental illness at the forefront and suicide threats in the wings. This play is less overtly comical than its predecessors, which may disappoint some. But you don’t have to know the first two plays well to follow or even like this one; Walker fills in a lot of background.

This time, Tina – now a social worker, married to a successful corporate lawyer – arranges to meet Bobby because she wants him to stop neglecting their two teenage daughters and take more responsibility. This leads to the usual bickering, accusations, testing and restrained affection. Bobby hasn’t changed all that much since his youth: he’s still full of unrealistic ambition, trying to become a playwright even though he hasn’t been to the theatre since high school, and he’s still having panic attacks, putting his head between his legs to calm down. He’s been involved in break-ins, and he’s even trying to cheat the workers’ compensation board by carrying a cane, pretending to have broken his ankle after falling out of a forklift at work.

At first, Tina appears a lot more together than Bobby – certainly more prosperous than she was in her teens and twenties – and her righteousness about his aimless lifestyle seems to come from a knowing place. But the façade cracks, and we soon find out the real reason why she needs him more involved in the kids’ lives. Her “spirit” is damaged, she says, and she’s going away for a while, probably for good, to get mental-health treatment. Social workers “burn out pretty regularly,” she says, “especially the ones who deal with the mentally ill.”

It’s a difficult role, emotionally speaking, but Murphy-Dyson pulls it off. Tina’s frustration with Bobby’s attitude (and with her life in general) shows itself in a wide range of colours as she lectures Bobby, scolds him, alternately discourages and encourages him and even resorts to physical attack. The second time, the violence is played for laughs – and it’s strongly implied that Bobby deserves it – but you still wonder why he doesn’t run away and have the police book her for assault.

Berger is also good, in a more subdued way. We’re supposed to see Bobby as an irresponsible fool who never grew up, but Berger gives him a likeable, confident quality that suggests he’s smarter and more empathetic than Tina gives him credit for. Part of that likeability could be in Bobby’s naiveté; when he shows her some of his first play – scribbled down on random scraps of paper or jotted on his cell phone – you can’t help rooting for him a little. (Tina gets a meta-theatrical laugh with the line, “Who even goes to the theatre anyway?”)

Walker still knows these characters very well after twenty-three years – some of the dialogue sounds as if it could have come straight from Tough! – but the script feels as if it could have used an extra edit, or maybe another draft or two. Much of it gets lost in Bobby’s and Tina’s constant mudslinging, calling up names and events from the past and taking other cheap shots, when the focus should stay on Tina’s issues and Bobby’s dilemmas. A later section, when Tina discusses their daughters’ quirks and sex lives, runs longer than it should and seems especially low-key after the earlier passions.

Despite the play’s lack of polish, Gass paces it well. He also designed the set, which consists of a bench, a trash can, an upstage building window with a crack in it and, most distracting, a floor area covered with maple leaves that rustle under the characters’ feet. The play is obviously set during the fall – likely to suggest how these aging characters have bypassed the spring and summer of their disappointing lives – but Gass could have gotten this across in a more subtle way.

The Damage Done is a suitable title, though, for a drama about two people who have suffered through their share of damage – some of it caused by each other, some by circumstance. One of Walker’s more poignant lines comes when Tina states her psychiatrist’s advice, that “I didn’t have to live today like it was a denial of yesterday.” It hints at a deeper, more heartfelt drama with a message about accepting the past and moving on. Maybe Walker – often cited as one of Canada’s most prolific playwrights – will give us that play at some point, but it’s probably time for him to abandon Bobby and Tina and move on himself.

The Damage Done runs at the Citadel until December 11.

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