Theatre review: Family story nimbly walks line between humour and heartbreak

How-has-my-love3Real lives don’t make perfect narratives. Director Rachel Ditor admits as much in her program notes for the Arts Club production of Marcus Youssef’s intensely personal How Has My Love Affected You? But sometimes the specificity of a true story can make it feel much more universal than any carefully shaped fiction.

How Has My Love Affected You? follows Youssef’s complex real-life relationship with his mother Roleene, from her marriage to and subsequent divorce from his father, to her development of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Accompanied by his son Zak on piano, Youssef, through a massive number of journals he discovered after his mother was moved from a California motel room to a Vancouver nursing home, gets to know the woman who gave him life. The mother-son relationship is fraught, the storyteller clearly torn between admiration and anger.

But rather than falling into the kind of overwrought drama these kinds of family tales sometimes entail, Youssef’s deft narration keeps the tale balanced between laughter and heartbreak. There are no good guys or bad guys—there are only different points of view that reflect and colour the story until it’s as close to whole as it can get.

This isn’t the first time Youssef has got personal on stage. The artistic director of Neworld Theatre’s offering for this year’s PuSh Festival, Winners and Losers, was a non-fiction head-to-head with his friend James Long. Youssef seems to thrive on self-examination, a trait he perhaps inherited from his mother, whose observations about her own relationships with others inspired the title of the play.

Youssef takes full advantage of Zak’s presence onstage as a mirror for the tension between himself and Roleene. One of the play’s biggest laughs comes from a joke about inherited physical attributes that would make a lot of kids (of any age) queasy with embarrassment. Yet there is also something cathartic about Zak’s presence—as though airing all this in front of an audience helps the family to cleanse themselves of it once and for all.

Through Zak’s voice, composer Veda Hille’s soundtrack, which comprises songs based on Roleene’s words, provides a haunting refrain on the kind of relentless introspection that comes from decades of living alone. If he’s slow on the occasional cue, he more than makes up for it with a rich, warm voice that recalls Morrissey.

Naomi Sider’s simple but powerful set design becomes a kind of character as well. Brown boxes overwhelm the stage, providing both obstacles and resources to the process of storytelling. When Youssef pauses to dig through the piles for just the right notebook or photo album, he becomes like an archeologist, unearthing evidence of the lost civilization that is his mother’s mind.

Near the end Youssef admits that there are a lot of Alzheimer’s stories these days. Indeed, it’s hard not to compare this play to last year’s Arts Club production of Scar Tissue, based on the Michael Ignatieff novel of the same name, which also focused on the relationship between a son and a mother struggling with the disease. Though that play featured some excellent performances, it tended to rely on the mother’s deterioration as a narrative crutch.

How Has My Love Affected You? is the opposite. Though it comes to a similar point — a son neglecting his life in order to care for a dying mother — it first forges a genuine emotional connection with the audience by focusing on the characters and the unique nuances of their familial relationship. By the end Roleene is a vivid, textured character, as present on stage as Youssef himself. Together with her strength, her failings as a parent and mismanaged struggles to connect with the world make her more human, which seems like a fitting testament to a real person.

Read it in the Vancouver Sun