“People are so amazing!” Debbie Patterson exclaims in her playwright’s notes in the program for her solo show Sargent & Victor & Me, seeing its official premiere (after earlier drafts were presented elsewhere) with Theatre Projects Manitoba.
To be honest, that kind of “aw shucks” sentiment usually raises my cynic’s hackles a bit. But Sargent & Victor & Me is a wrenching testament to just how amazing people can be - especially the people we might least consider to be so.
'The betrayal and decay of her own body mirrors the similar conditions she sees in the Sargent and Victor neighbourhood ' - Joff Schmidt
Patterson crafted the play by interviewing people who live and work in the area around Sargent and Victor - one of the city’s poorest, and most maligned, neighbourhoods. She blends their stories with the story of Gillian, a fictionalized version of herself.
Like Patterson, Gillian lives with multiple sclerosis, which particularly affects her left leg (which she nicknames “Blanche” and berates as the “useless sister” of her good leg, “Stella”). “I don’t have multiple sclerosis,” she says. “It has me.”
The betrayal and decay of her own body mirrors the similar conditions she sees in the Sargent and Victor neighbourhood - once a family-friendly area, and home to small family businesses and Icelandic immigrants, but now plagued by crime, despair, and poverty.
We see this in a range of characters from the neighbourhood, all played by Patterson. Among them are Gillian’s brother Bob, who (like Patterson’s real-life brother) lives just a few doors away from the intersection; the impossibly-cheerful minister of the church-run food bank where the play’s action unfolds; a young gang member; and an elderly resident too poor to leave - despite the fact she’d like to, and has little good to say about her neighbours.
Patterson presents all the characters without judgment - and like the neighbourhood they live in, they aren’t always pretty. There are stories of prostitution and rape, of police brutality, and of racism.
But there’s also humour here - a surprising amount, in fact, although much of it is in a very dark vein. Patterson plays most of the characters broadly and for comic effect, an approach which takes some getting used to - but which provides some necessary comic relief.
Arne MacPherson’s well-tuned production gets help in the design department from Hugh Conacher’s striking lighting work, and gracefully understated music and sound design by Christine Fellows and John K. Samson.
But it’s Patterson’s writing that’s really the star here. Her skill in blending the stories of Sargent and Victor with her own - and her bravery in putting her struggles, her fears, and her hopes onstage so nakedly - makes this an exquisitely, achingly beautiful piece.
The Sargent and Victor neighbourhood, like Patterson’s own body, is decaying in many ways. But Sargent and Victor and Me shows us the unvarnished beauty that still lives and thrives under that decay.
Theatre Projects Manitoba’s production of Sargent & Victor & Me runs at the University of Winnipeg’s Asper Centre for Theatre and Film until March 9.