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REVIEW: Casey and Diana is an immersive and emotional triumph

World premiere of Casey and Diana looks at the moment Princess Diana visited Casey House hospice in Toronto in 1991
Krystin Pellerin as Diana and Sean Arbuckle as Thomas in Casey and Diana at the Studio Theatre.

A world premiere commissioned by the Stratford Festival is worthy of a perfunctory splashy headline but playwright Nick Green’s poignant Casey and Diana is a unique theatrical event that goes well beyond just recognition of its debut status.

Very creatively he has re-figured the late Princess Diana’s historic October 25, 1991, visit to Casey House in Toronto – the world’s first stand-alone hospice providing palliative care and support for those living with HIV/AIDS – into a poignant series of moving personal vignettes.

Green’s goal is to move audiences from their more detached voyeuristic position to one where viewers suddenly find themselves immersed and ultimately connected to the still very relevant subject and those real people – not just actors – touched by the subject matter.

With a caring adherence to and understanding of the concept and a gift of timely pacing, director Andrew Kushnir casts his keen eye on specific details in many emotionally charged scenarios and the results are gratifying and stirring for those seeking meaning from their theatrical experiences.

The top-flight cast is led by the formidable Sean Arbuckle who gifts the audience with a brilliant showcase performance as the terminally ill Thomas – the man whose hand is destined to be shaken by the non-conformist royal Diana. 

He embraces the physically and mentally-challenging role with an astonishingly convincing array of emotions in gritty up-and-down scenarios highlighted by his sharp wit and candour, soulful dignity, a brave acceptance of his fate which is tragically shared by other Casey House residents and the simple joy of embracing life to its fullest.

Diana’s visit is a meaningful highlight in Thomas’ life not just a moment in time, one to jot down in his diary, then simply show up for on the day:

“Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. I mean I got to make it to today, so I already owe one to the almighty whoever. I swear there are claw marks in the hardwood. One more week, we screamed, clinging like cats to a screen door. One more week! Your Highness, it was the longest week of our lives.” 

His biting delivered with a tongue sharpened over the years, has become an integral part of living for nurse Vera, cheery volunteer helper Marjorie, staff and residents including the recently arrived and much younger André:

“Well duh. Leave some room for Jesus, Vera. There’s me, then next longest is Leonard, then Vince, then Rafael… then what’s-his-name… he has the most attached earlobes I’ve ever seen so I usually call him Mr. No-Lobe.”

Even in his imaginative pre-visit chats with Diana, his words and his physical condition suddenly become victims to his ever-present condition in a startling and frightening manner:

“Exactly. And I think okay, one more minute, tiny simple things blink, neck, hands, abs... and legs? Legs. Legs. And… feet. Ahhh. You can’t imagine the feeling of putting your bare feet on the ground after being in bed for two weeks. It’s a kind of cool that ripples into your whole body. It makes your breath catch. And then... woosh one more minute I’m standing and you’re smiling and I’m thinking three minutes down there must be more gas in the tank than I thought. Maybe I could… maybe I could… Maybe I could hip. Thigh. Knee. Fall forward. Heel ankle foot. Shift. Hip. Thigh. Knee... every step a little fall heel ankle foot. Shift. Fall, heel, foot, fall, heel, foot. The mechanics of the ankle. The angle of the heel coming in contact with the ground, and then the spreading of the foot. All the tiny things. One more minute, two minutes, closer. I could see myself getting.”

While this beautifully etched portrait of sadness produces the requisite tissues and tears for an appreciative and genuinely moved audience, it is no calculated tearjerking soap opera but rather a touching slice of reality punctuated by moments of pure joy and personal revelations shared by both patients and dedicated, clearly physically, mentally exhausted staff.

Sophia Walker tackles her role as the weary but still compassionate nurse Vera with great vigour and a genuine sense of sympathy, providing a heartfelt, eye-opening peek at a complex occupation that requires at both the best and worst of times, a measured balance of sticking by policy while keeping individual feelings in check, often with great difficulty.

Seemingly free from the confines of emotion on-the-job, in another heated discussion with Thomas’ sister, she reveals there is an inner, clearly less pragmatic side that surface even for her: 

“Thomas always jokes that Jacob was my favourite. That was his last roommate. Marjorie knew him for a bit, but that was actually his second admission. He was here for longer before, just over three months. It was impossible not to like him. He completely disarmed me. In about two seconds it was three months later and we were very close. And he was doing a lot better. Night and day. I thought… maybe he’s one of the few that gets out and lives for a few more years. So, he got discharged, and he got a place and I went to visit him a couple times a week and he was doing great. I bought him a houseplant. Now, any guesses what happened next?” 

The equally-complicated volunteer Marjorie hides her own personal secret, a revelation that could risk her losing her much-coveted privilege of remaining at Casey House. Linda Kash broaches the character with an abundance of feelgood energy with an underlying fear-induced anger she releases towards the latter stages.

As the six cast members share equally relevant life stories with deeply-held feelings, the audience gets more than just a cursory glance at each one. A much younger Andre, initially appears gruff as a figure lost in isolation seeking to avoid, at least publicly, his own grim reality. 

In a gradual but steady, exploratory fashion, Davinder Malhi broadens the scope of his personality with open displays of joy and wonder touched with a good-humoured acceptance of Thomas, Marjorie, and Vera.

Arguably the most labyrinthine persona in dire need of disclosure for the audience’s sake is Thomas’ sister Pauline. She’s abrasively loud and more often aggressive but no less an insecure individual plagued by a host of troubles with her past and present defined, often inaccurately, as episodes of heartlessness and misunderstanding.

In a lively multi-faceted performance, Laura Condlin is magnificently believable, capturing the intricacies of a woman who draws upon her more than obvious failings yet laterally unearths a passionate side submerged by a circle of tragedies encompassing much of her life.

Although entitled Casey and Diana, Green and Kushnir have skillfully avoided transforming the work into a mere showcase for the late princess and another glaring headline of the moment.  

While her appropriately lauded visit is key to the central theme, its is most obviously life-affirming and a symbolic deeply-driven motivation for his survival. As such, the characterization of Diana ultimately requires a delicate approach.

Krystin Pellerin provides a precise and exacting answer to that prerequisite, seizing the moment in numerous dream-like scenarios and the actual visit with a wonderfully subtle performance with nary a trace of regal bravado. Decidedly understated, yet still a royal highlight.

Without falling prey to those notorious spoiler alerts, your humble scribe offers an uncharacteristically, perhaps a tad unprofessional, bit of advice to catch Casey and Diana at the Studio Theatre before it closes June 17. A stunningly moving and dynamically executed theatrical experience that can’t be missed but, while coated with much-appreciated moments of laughter and joy, be prepared for an inevitable Niagara falling of tears.