THEATRE

Body language

A finger pressed on the pulse of the times

John Bemrose March 13 1989
THEATRE

Body language

A finger pressed on the pulse of the times

John Bemrose March 13 1989

Body language

THEATRE

A finger pressed on the pulse of the times

HEALTH, THE MUSICAL By John Gray Directed by Larry Lillo

Its title makes it sound like an educational skit presented by the health and welfare department. But Health, The Musical— the latest offering from Vancouver-based playwright John Gray—is anything but clinical. Bawdy, irreverent and completely off the wall, the show about one man’s battle with his failing body will surprise even the most dedicated Gray-watchers. It is light-years from the modulated intimacy of Gray’s big international musical hit of 1978, Billy Bishop Goes to War. And in sheer energy, it even outdoes his popular 1981 show, Rock and Roll. Health—which premiered Feb. 24 at the Vancouver Playhouse, where it plays until March 25—has only one central character, Mort (Eric Peterson). But Mort is backed by a three-man chorus representing parts of his body: his mouth is called Smiley (Ian McDonald), his digestive tract, Bum (Stephen E. Miller), and his genitals, Snake (Ross Douglas). The more Mort abuses Bum, Smiley and Snake with too much work and too much rich food, the more rebellious they become—until the stage is filled with a comic and musical free-for-all that is equally inspired by the Marx Brothers and The Suprêmes. It all adds up to an evening of belly laughs—a welcome tonic in an age where success is so often earned at the expense of the stomach and the liver.

The man who wrote Health got his inspiration firsthand. When John Gray reached 40 two years ago, he found himself afflicted with physical ailments. Speaking to Maclean ’s last week in his favorite downtown Vancouver bar, The Media Club, he recalled: “My back went out, my eyes suddenly got weaker. It was like the planned depreciation of a Ford. My warranty was up—and my body started to fall apart.” Gray also pointed out that Eric Peterson, a friend of many years who also played Billy Bishop, has experienced even worse health problems in adulthood. He suffers from Crohn’s disease, a potentially fatal intestinal disorder that he has learned to control through diet. His struggle influenced Gray in his creation of Mort, who also has a rebellious digestive tract.

Gray admits to being every bit as driven as Mort. He exudes a restless energy that sets him twisting in his chair when he talks. “I’m compulsive,” he said. “I write all the bloody time. When I don’t have a play to write, I write letters to the editor.” Besides the musicals, for which he is best known, he authored the 1984

novel Dazzled, a tale about Vancouver hippies that won mixed reviews. He also chums out articles and screenplays, including The King of Friday Night, a TV special based on Rock and Roll that aired on CBC in 1984. As well, he gives vent to his highly opinionated social conscience

in his witty satirical sketches for CBC’s The Journal, which appear every two weeks.

Health, The Musical may not boost Gray’s fame back to the level of his Billy Bishop days but it looks like a definite hit. The play is unusual because instead of using stock comic characters in a realistic setting, it cleverly dramatizes one man’s war with himself. Mort (as in “mortality”) is a typical, highly stressed suburbanite—a walking bundle of neurotic fears and needs. His wife, Angela, is leaving him, his boss is overworking him, and his body is giving him pain. He is also beset by inner voices—particularly those of his father and mother—who goad him with pious homilies about working hard and staying healthy. Mort’s mere survival in the midst of the onslaught verges on the heroic.

Peterson plays not only Mort but, as he did in Billy Bishop, other characters as well—from

Angela to Mort’s Scottish-born doctor to Mimi, a French-Canadian he flirts with at the office. Peterson’s juggling of the roles without a moment’s confusion is a tour de force, although he gets some help from a prop or two. To recreate Mort’s father’s voice, Peterson makes a hand puppet of Mort’s tie and pretends that it is speaking to him. Adopting an old man’s querulous tone, he makes such comments as “Morty, your mother and I were faithful for approximately 150 years.” Mort, who yearns to start an affair with Mimi, can only look guilty.

Health is essentially a farce, but for all its broad humor it has several moments of heartfelt sadness. Sent to the hospital for an operation on his bowels, Mort is suddenly afflicted with loneliness and visions of his own mortality. Before X-rays are taken, he is given a barium solution that begins to act as a very violent

laxative. Just then, a beautiful nurse enters the room. Caught between his embarrassing physical condition and his still-vital libido, Mort can only cry out helplessly, “She’s young, she’s beautiful!” Peterson, with his haunted, elfin face and air of frazzled desperation, gives the line extraordinary poignancy.

His brilliant acting is superbly backed by McDonald, Miller and Douglas. Appropriately dressed in work clothes and hard hats (they are the laborers in Mort’s fast-lane life), they grow increasingly confused and inefficient. Snake is aroused at the wrong moments—and relaxed at the right ones. Smiley blurts out inane platitudes and eats too much. Bum hurts. And all three dance and sing their way through Gray’s lively score, which ranges from sambas to rock numbers with toe-tapping contagiousness.

Gray’s considerable musical talent has deep

roots. The eldest of three sons born to Howard Gray, an insurance executive, and his highschool-teacher wife, Marion, Gray can recall tagging along to his father’s barbershop quartet rehearsals in Truro, N.S., where he grew up. “I remember I was no higher than a man’s hand,” Gray said. “But I was old enough to fall in love with those close harmonies. I think that’s why I put so many of them into Rock and Roll.” Although something of a misfit as a child, Gray blossomed in his teens as keyboard and trumpet player for The Lincolns, a local rock band that enjoyed wide notoriety in the Maritimes during the 1960s.

After graduating in 1968 from Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., with a degree in English literature, he took up graduate studies in drama at the University of British Columbia. There, he met another student, Peterson, and the two of them—along with Larry Lillo, now artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse and director of Health— were founding members of Vancouver Theatre Workshop (later renamed Tamahnous Theatre). Then, in 1975, Gray’s first marriage ended and he moved to Toronto, joining Peterson at Theatre Passe Muraille. He soon produced his first script, 18 Wheels, a celebration of truckers, which he directed and acted in. But his big success came in 1978, the year he launched his bittersweet two-man musical about Canada’s greatest wartime flying ace, Billy Bishop.

Now, Gray is philosophical about the media attention that swirled around him during the years when he and Peterson (he played the piano, while Peterson acted) were appearing in Billy Bishop. “Being in Time magazine feels like nothing, nothing at all,” he said. “People who take their sense of self from that kind of thing turn into monsters.” Gray added: “I want to work till I’m 91 and then drop dead. The happiness is in the work. All the rest is b.s.”

Most days, Gray works at home, a modest, two-storey Vancouver house where he lives with his second wife, Beverlee Larsen, and their sons Zachary, 6, and Ezra, 3. When not writing, he can often be found jogging down forest trails in a nearby park. He clearly loves Vancouver, although his affection is tinged with irony. “If I were living in Toronto,” he said, “I’d be lunched to death by people who want to spend two hours discussing a production deal that will come to nothing.” By contrast, the neglect he suffers in Vancouver is benign: it allows him time to write. “Also,” he added, “out here I’m on enemy territory. The government here doesn’t care much for artists. It helps me keep my edge.”

His edge in the new musical is generally as sharp as ever, although there are a few nicks in it too. His central theme—that people make themselves ill by telling themselves lies—is not explored thoroughly enough. Yet such lapses are far from fatal. With Health, The Musical, John Gray demonstrates that, in his own zany way, he has his finger on the racing pulse of the times.

JOHN BEMROSE