THEATRE REVIEW: REFUGE (2016)
Written by Mary Vingoe
A Nightwood Theatre Production
The internet has made amateur detectives of us all. When confronted with a questionable claim, we’re only a few clicks away from quieting our doubt. In Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, a stranger from beyond the grid forces us to examine just how much, or little, we’re willing to take on good faith.
Refuge tells the story of Eritrean soldier Ayinom, who’s beat the odds and made it to Canada. His mother (Andrea Davis) has already immigrated without trouble, but Ayinom’s military past sends up red flags. While his case is investigated, he’s kept in limbo: first in a jail cell, then the spare room of an ex-political activist (Pamela Mala Sinha) eager to help. But the chain of individuals who come to Ayinom’s aid guard borders of their own: motives are questioned, limits are tested and Ayinom struggles to find any kind of sanctuary.
We’re tested, too. Ayinom never appears onstage, so we're left to rely on the character testimonies of others. It’s a smart and engaging convention, but most of the mystery is short-lived. Too much ambiguity is resolved, and Refuge’s tidy conclusion weakens its dramatic tension and undercuts some critical questions.
Still, it’s an interesting play with some strong performances. Jason Weinberg shows impressive range as immigration lawyer Saul, and his scenes with old flame Pamela (Sinha) are some of the play’s best. Ryan Hollyman plays Pam’s husband with unnerving vulnerability, and Mary Francis Moore and Raïs Muoi’s on-air radio repartee offers some nice comic relief (though one of their best jokes goes on too long).
Though Laura Gardner’s stark set seems incomplete, it makes an effective canvas for Kaitlin Hickey’s meditative projections of sea and snow. It’s a canny metaphor: the same water that carries refugees to safe haven also claims many lives. So why trust it?
Refuge is easily relevant on a global scale. But while it’s a good drama on a crucial subject, it doesn’t ask much of us that we haven’t been asked before.