A Human Cargo Production
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Nov. 5-16, 2019
Written by Christopher Morris
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Starring Gord Rand
See the narrow, elongated stage in the photo below? Besides his simple costume and a remarkable script, that’s all actor Gord Rand has to work with in The Runner. Black drapes obscure the fact that it’s really one long treadmill. And it’s against the relentless motion of that treadmill that Rand delivers a truly penetrating experience.
Rand portrays Jacob, an on-call volunteer with the search, rescue and recovery group ZAKA. Its mandate is to offer first aid to victims of terror attacks, natural disasters and accidents. When necessary, it collects human remains — limbs, organs, blood, tissues — to ensure that Jewish burial laws, which stipulate that dismembered bodies must be buried in their entirety, are observed. Jacob is single, lives with his mother and always keeps his cellphone nearby, even tucking it under his pillow at night.
Jacob, though, finds himself in a quandary. He has responded to a call in which he found an Israeli soldier dead alongside a road. Nearby, an Arab woman, shot in the back, lay dying. True to his oath of doing no harm and helping anyone in need, he turned her over, lifted the black hair from her face with his fingers, and administered CPR. He believes he has done the right thing, but he is now the subject of recriminations — from superiors, from members of his community, even from within his family — about saving the woman who may have killed the soldier.
We learn of the incident and its aftermath as Jacob walks and runs. He is in constant motion, endlessly striving against the teeming currents of self-doubt, moral judgments and larger-than-life questions. Periodic explosions and disorientation punctuate Jacob’s journey inward, which is as alternately relaxed and fevered as is his physical pace.
Against the background of this call and two others (including one to a mass grave in Ukraine), there are near-desperate explorations of unfathomable problems. If God is good and if God implanted that goodness within humankind, why does so much evil occur? How are human beings supposed to make moral choices? Why, of all places on Earth, did God choose a miserable, rocky strip of parched soil in the Middle East as Israel’s home? Why do ZAKA’s leaders appear to preach one ethic and practise another? Why do Jacob’s closest relatives not comprehend who he really is? There are scores of questions and dilemmas as Jacob’s pace relaxes and quickens.
Lighting and sound design are crucial components of this play. They quicken audience members’ pulses as moral crescendos build, then deliver shock and awe at critical moments, sometimes toying with our expectations and timing. Only once or twice do those bursts of sound and light seem unmotivated, designed more to toy with the audience rather than effectively complement the script.
Rand’s performance is outstanding. He deftly delivers an hour-long monologue peppered with anger, confusion, doubt, recrimination, cynicism and joy — with an occasional dash of humour — all while in constant motion atop a narrow treadmill whose speed is in continuous flux. His portrayal of Jacob is at once exhilarating and exhausting; for him, it must be both of those things, as well as emotionally draining.
Rand is a runner in his personal life and, coincidentally enough, last year starred in a feature film titled Man Running, written by Donna Brunsdale and Gary Burns. Burns also directed. The film opened in Calgary earlier this year.
If you’ve ever questioned the ability of theatre — especially a one-hour, one-person play — to deal proficiently with life’s biggest questions, this show is an unequivocal answer.
Another review, this one by London Free Press arts reporter Joe Belanger, can be found here.