Review: Where the Blood Mixes is a roller coaster that never loses steam

Craig Lauzon, Sheldon Elter and Oliver Dennis star in Where the Blood Mixes at Soulpepper Theatre.DAHLIA KATZ.

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  • Title: Where the Blood Mixes
  • Written by: Kevin Loring
  • Director: Jani Lauzon
  • Actors: Valerie Planche, Craig Lauzon, Sheldon Elter, Oliver Dennis, Tara Sky, James Dallas Smith
  • Company: Soulpepper Theater
  • Venue: Young Center for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Patrons and staff required to wear masks at all times.

Soulpepper Theater and Native Earth Performing Arts join forces to stage Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes. Based on Loring’s own community, the 2009 Governor General Award-winning play is a darkly funny, deeply cathartic story of a family torn apart and reunited as they grapple with the dark legacy of the residential school system.

The story follows Floyd (Sheldon Elter) and Mooch (Craig Lauzon), two friends who survived residential school together. They have the kind of intimate friendship that is forged in a shared hell, where they can fire insults at one another, get into fisticuffs like teenagers and ultimately love each other, despite it all. Life is fairly status quo until the sudden return of Floyd’s daughter, Christine, played by Tara Sky. She was taken into foster care as a small child and her return forces them to face their demons, rather than remaining in denial, tethered to their past and numbing their pain with alcohol.

Christine chooses to return home to connect with Floyd around the same time as the government is promising compensation to survivors of residential school. The compensation package is tiered relative to the level of abuse endured. We learn that Floyd is entitled to the smallest amount. Mooch would get significantly more, if only he’d talk about it. A net of letters regarding compensation hangs over center stage, the omnipresent heft of abuse and unfulfilled promises casts a dark shadow over the town.

The cast is filled with some of the best Indigenous ensemble actors on the scene today. Craig, who many know from Royal Canadian Air Farce, exercises his comedic and dramatic range to strike the perfect balance between affable (albeit obnoxious) town drunk and severely wounded child, unable to escape the horrors of his past. And though everyone gives a stellar performance, Elter’s final scene left me surrounded by a chorus of sniffles and collective eye wiping.

Life is fairly status quo for the characters in Where the Blood Mixes, until the sudden return of Christine, played by Tara Sky, right, the daughter of Floyd, played by Sheldon Elter, left.DAHLIA KATZ.

Unfortunately, Valerie Planche, who plays June, was recovering from illness on opening night. Director Jani Lauzon (no relation to Craig) filled in, sharing the stage with her daughter, Sky. The female characters are the backbone of this story – without them, the men would be forever lost to self medication. Planche, like Jani, is a fierce performer, and hopefully she makes a speedy return to the stage to give life to the feisty June.

Loring’s sharp dialogue is unrelenting with leaps in time and place that could easily become overwhelming, but under Jani’s direction, the cast weaves seamlessly between their past and present, myth and inner worlds. The creative team builds a minimal and elegant set that facilitates smooth transitions. Two walls upstage allow for the video projection design of Samay Arcentales Cajas to shine. The projected landscapes whisk the audience into the unforgiving terrain of Kumsheen (or Lytton, BC, where the Fraser and Thompson rivers meet) and deep into the rivers. Dreamy animations invite the audience into the world of lore, memory and the psyches of the characters. James Dallas Smith’s guitar adds a haunting score to scenes outside of the present. Together, they all create a complex world for the actors without being cumbersome.

Where the Blood Mixes could be painful, but Loring is a masterful writer. He deftly disarms and unites the audience with humour as he gradually exposes the soft and wounded underbelly of each character, the toxic effects from residential school. Tears of laughter are gradually replaced by tears of sadness, with a few more tears of laughter thrown in for good measure.

Under Jani Lauzon’s direction, the cast of Where the Blood Mixes weaves seamlessly between their past and present, the creative team having built a minimal and elegant set that facilitates smooth transitions.DAHLIA KATZ.

The last years have been rough for the playwright, and the Indigenous community as a whole, with the discovery of physical evidence of unmarked graves on residential school sites confirming what survivors have been saying for years. This was followed by devastating forest fires and flooding that nearly destroyed Loring’s home, the N’lakap’mux community in Lytton. Where the Blood Mixes feels that much more urgent and special than before.

At 100 minutes without intermission, the play is a roller coaster that never loses steam, nor does it become overstimulating or tiresome. The production is completely engaging to the point where smartphones, the pandemic and provincial elections cease to exist. Nothing exists but the world on stage – a world where healing and rebirth is possible.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theater to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick design across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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