- Title: After the Fire
- Written by: Matthew MacKenzie
- Genre: Dark comedy
- Director: Brendan McMurtry-Howlett
- Actors: Sheldon Elter, Jesse Gervais, Louise Lambert and Kaitlyn Riordan
- Company: Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts
- Venue: Theatre Centre
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to Jan. 19
After the Fire may have one of the greatest surprise endings ever in a Canadian play – and certainly has one of the most Canadian surprise endings ever to a play. It’s shocking and amusing in equal measure and satisfies a dark fantasy most people in this country have had at some point in their lives.
Written by Albertan playwright Matthew MacKenzie, and currently on at Toronto’s Theatre Centre, this new dark comedy concerns two couples living in Fort McMurray, Alta., who had their lives completely upended by the 2016 wildfire that led over 88,000 people to flee their homes.
Some time after this disaster, sisters Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) and Carmell (the excellent Louise Lambert) are hiking through the woods at night looking to throw a purse with mysterious contents into an oil-sands tailing pond.
Meanwhile, their oil-worker husbands, the sensitive and quiet Barry (Sheldon Elter) and talkative Ty (Jesse Gervais), are busy digging a deep hole in another location for reasons that won’t become clear until the end.
Facing economic and personal uncertainty, all four seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
But Ty is most obviously losing his mind over the fact that Carmell, who recently served him with divorce papers, is now dating an environmentalist – amusingly, only referred to as “Greenpeace” by all the characters in the show. Still, he refuses to take responsibility for the cocaine habit that really broke up his marriage.
Now living in his RV, Ty’s one of these men who feels like the overall culture is turning against him and is growing increasingly defensive about it. Naturally, this makes him the most entertaining character in MacKenzie’s play.
“When did truck nuts become a bad thing?” he asks – an off-hand question that takes on an unexpectedly bigger resonance later in the play.
While Ty and Carmell’s divorce drama takes up the most space in the show, it eventually becomes clear that Barry and Laura have actually been disturbed on a deeper level by their near escape from the wildfire. They lost their home and are living in Carmell’s basement, where their young daughter is having nightmares about what she ominously calls the “fire to come.”
Since a visit to the sweat lodge with his mother during his family’s postfire exile, Barry has become obsessed with Fort McMurray’s flora and fauna – and taken to collecting and freezing dead animals he finds on the job. (He seems like the creepy cousin of the Indigenous oil worker on the lam that Elter played in MacKenzie’s recent Dora-winning play Bears, which returns to Factory Theatre later in February.) Meanwhile, Laura is clearly in shock – but why, exactly?
A collaboration between Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts in association with Native Earth, director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett’s production takes place on a simple but ingenious giant mound of dirt designed by Alison Yanota. I’ve watched a lot of actors dig imaginary holes on stages in my time – but I’ve never before got to see actors actually dig a two-metre hole in front of me. (Kaleigh Krysztofiak’s lighting is also an effective design element – bringing us flashes of fire and helping visually manifest the trauma faced by our four protagonists.)
McMurtry-Howlett’s in-the-round staging does occasionally make it hard to hear some of the actors – and a couple of the conversations that veer into themes about the environment, industry and personal versus collective responsibility end up feeling a little bit circular. (Ty’s character is very funny as played by the shaggy Gervais, but could use a little more consistency; has he taken in what he’s learning in therapy or not?)
Ultimately, the occasional lagging moments in the show are more than made up for by its tight fight direction by Richard Lee and a few fine jokes – starting with the excellent one about Timbit selection that opens the show and grows into a hilarious conversation between Carmell and Laura about what it would be like ordering a double-double as women in Saudi Arabia.
And then there’s After the Fire’s Alberta-gothic ending – which isn’t just great because it’s a surprise. It is also good writing that alters your perception of all of the characters, the state of their relationships – and maybe Fort McMurray as well.