FAMED CANUCKS broadcaster Jim Robson always used to say “a special hello” to the “shut-ins, those of you who can’t make it out to the game”. It’s these latter people that The Ones We Leave Behind is concerned with—the old, the infirm, and the forgotten.
Abby (Agnes Tong) and Greg (Jimmy Yi) work for the Public Guardian and Trustee, the provincial agency that handles the estates of those who die without family or friends. Abby becomes a little obsessed with her first case in the field, a woman who was discovered dead in her Vancouver apartment after five months.
Abby is bullheaded as she spars with Greg over his 36 years of onthe-job wisdom. Yet she’s no match for her mother (Alannah Ong), who lives in stubborn isolation and rejects all the help that Abby offers.
Abby’s own carapace isn’t helping her relationship with her boyfriend, Kyle (Brahm Taylor), either. He’s trying to help her unravel the story of her absent father, who left her and her mom when she was a child.
The elder performers stand out in this production. Ong has a deadpan wit as she deflects Abby’s appeals, never falling into an easy stereotype. I really admired Yi’s performance in Pacific Theatre’s recent Kim’s Convenience, so it was dismaying to see him a little underused here. He’s a bit of an attendant lord in The Ones We Leave Behind, not much more than a foil for Abby’s enthusiasm.
There is a tidiness to the production, which is a credit to director John Cooper and set designer Pam Johnson. They stage the show in front of a series of layered apartment walls—the places in which we live and die. As the show progresses, these feel more and more like marble tombstones in a busy cemetery.
However, Loretta Seto’s script disappoints. It’s a clever idea, uncovering the story of a dead recluse. That seed suggests all kinds of exciting theatrical possibilities: flashbacks, voices from the past, overlapping timelines. Instead, the play’s structure is very pedestrian.
Likewise, the play’s characters seem to give voice to their every feeling and thought. This lack of subtext makes for a wordy show and, particularly in the first act, slows the action down. Seto can trust more to skilled performers, who will find so much to express between the lines.
Do these shortcomings thwart the production? Not quite. You may need some patience with the play’s early scenes. But the action and energy pick up in the second half and explore some unfamiliar territory.