Arts Club Theatre The Waiting Room cast

When a soulful crooner with fiery vocals collaborates with a dark comedy mastermind, the delightful result is a superb piece of entertainment. The Arts Club Theatre’s The Waiting Room, Morris Panych’s theatrical interpretation of John Mann’s album of the same name, might even convert musical theatre cynics.
In 2009, Spirit of the West’s front man was battling a faceless, relentless adversary – colorectal cancer. Mann documented his ordeal through a series of songs, ripe with emotions of sadness, anger, passion and gratitude. The album was fertile ground for a play but the script wasn’t crystallizing for Mann. He then reached out to long-time friend Morris Panych, whose penchant for absurdism was an ideal fit for the topic. 

Arts Club Theatre The Waiting Room cast

Although lovingly supported by his wife, Mann nonetheless feels alone in his struggle with an irrational foe. Themes of loneliness, confusion and fear are richly layered within Panych’s style of black comedy, witty dialogue and defiant quips. 
For audiences, The Waiting Room offers so much more than a traditional musical. Mann was originally set to play himself in the role but a devastating diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s made this impossible. Thus, none of the players burst out in song in the middle of an act. Instead, Mann, along with a live band (Brad Gillard, Eric Reed, Allan Rodger, Shari Ulrich), belch out appropriately timed tunes behind a scrim, while the cast continue the action. 

Arts Club Theatre The Waiting Room cast

Set changes, prop changes and even entire scenes are expertly choreographed to the music by Wendy GorlingGerald King’s lighting arrangements inject ambiance and chroma to Ken Macdonald’s stark, monochrome set. Despite simplicity and lack of colour, the set is an artistic marvel that garnered “oohs” and “ahhs” during opening night. I won’t ruin the spectacle, but suffice it to say that it’s an ingenious manipulation of ordinary props that conveys dysfunction amongst order.
Even though an unforeseen attack by an illogical disease halts Mann’s organized existence, the play is more than a dark drama about cancer. Panych tackles the uncomfortable topic with lightheartedness, antics and banter that convey hope, happiness and grace. Mann’s personal, uplifting and powerful melodies are interjected into a humorous script that inconspicuously questions the meaning of life and our time in it. “We’re all afraid of what’s going to happen but it happens anyway.”

Jonathon Young
[Jonathon Young]
To blur the line between reality and fantasy, most of the characters are named solely by their first initial. We first meet J (John) in the waiting room with other patients, giving a quirky speech about “waiting”. Jonathon Young as Mann’s doppelgänger pulls off another meticulous performance through every silent gesticulation, wacky facial grimace and tender dialogue. As J’s fears surrounding his disease increase, he is comforted by a haunting apparition named C – a little girl recently deceased from leukemia.

Jonathon Young and Matreya Scarrwener
[Jonathon Young and Matreya Scarrwener] 

Having already transitioned as a cancer victim, C’s job is to “guide” J to the other side. Leave it to Panych to conjure up death’s representative in the form of a spunky and precocious darling! A relative newcomer, Matreya Scarrwener exudes plenty of moxie in her sparkling performance. Along his journey from diagnosis to recovery, J interacts with a host of personalities. The hospital staff – Dr. D, Nurse F, Nurse A, Dr.F, Nurse C– were all played with orderly, nonchalant competence by Peter Anderson, Chris Cochrane and Bonnie Panych

Jillian Fargey is touching and mirthful as J’s optimistic wife who must smuggle her own fears during her husband’s illness. The entire cast is aptly selected to pull off this remarkable production. Behind the scenes, well-deserved kudos go to Rachel Ditor for her precise dramaturgy and to Caryn Fehr and Angela Beaulieu for fine stage management. From start to finish, the 90-minute play ran like a falling stack of dominos due to seamless execution from the entire crew.

Arts Club Theatre The Waiting Room
Although Mann performs live, his ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s has made every performance a remarkable feat of its own; any fan of his work is highly encourage to take in this show. Mann’s opening night performance was both energetic and engaging, bringing tears to the house and the audience to its feet. 

The Waiting Room runs through October 31 at the Granville Island Stage. Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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