A provocative journey to the end: New play How It Ends explores end-of-life issues

By | April 20, 2019

How it ends is really just the beginning for the latest show from Winnipeg’s Debbie Patterson.

How It Ends is also the title of her new play, produced by her own company — Sick + Twisted Theatre — and given its premiere as part of Prairie Theatre Exchange’s Leap Series, which focuses on more experimental theatre works.

And How It Ends does experiment — sometimes boldly, sometimes playfully, though not always entirely successfully — with a blend of approaches to telling its story and raising difficult questions over its 75 minutes.

Patterson — a well-known local actor, playwright and director — lives with multiple sclerosis, and so has an interest in the questions the play poses about disability, quality of life, and what it means to choose to die.

But those are questions that are universal, she points out in How It Ends — and one of the production’s strengths is how it engages with its audience and forces us to confront our own responses to the ideas it raises.

The action begins in PTE’s small Colin Jackson Studio theatre, with what seems like a straightforward bit of drama involving a sister (Johanna Riley) and brother (Andrew Cecon) in a boat, fishing and discussing life and death.

Johanna Riley and Andrew Cecon in How It Ends. The show begins as conventional drama, but soon moves into deeper territory. (Leif Norman/PTE)

But a sudden twist in the plot sends the audience out of the theatre, guided by Patterson as an angel in winged wheelchair, and into other parts of the PTE space — and into a deeper exploration of living and dying.

Patterson and company often speak directly to the audience, forcing us to look deeply into our own beliefs about living, dying and how we want our lives to end.

Sometimes, the questions posed are deep — what does it mean to live well? Would you rather survive the death of a loved one, or go first — and leave your loved ones to suffer?

But there’s also a surprising amount of comedy here for a play about dying, thanks in large part to Patterson’s sly, winking performance.

Some of the questions posed seem less deep on the surface — how long do you spend wiping your bum every day, Patterson asks? It’s cheeky and opens up a good comedic bit, but it’s also a jumping off point to explore something deeper — what does “dignity” mean to you? Is it worth sacrificing some of that dignity to extend your life?

In short, Patterson asks, would you rather die than be unable to wipe your own bum?

Riley, Cecon and Marie-Josée Chartier in How It Ends. Arne MacPheron’s production mixes dance with more traditional theatre, monologue and some verbatim theatre, based on interviews Patterson conducted in creating the show. (Leif Norman/PTE)

It’s actually one of the play’s deeper questions, and one of the problems with How It Ends is that in other places, it feels like the questions it poses are the sort anyone who’s ever even briefly contemplated their own mortality will have already pondered.

Even so, it raises those questions with ambitious style in director Arne MacPheron’s production, mixing dance (Riley is a former member of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, and the cast is rounded out by dance artist Marie-Josée Chartier) with more traditional theatre, monologue and even a bit of verbatim theatre, based on interviews Patterson conducted in creating the show.

Sometimes that works, sometimes not — How It Ends throws a lot into the mix, and it doesn’t always feel like it gels perfectly.

It also feels like it hasn’t quite found its perfect balance in tone between deadly seriousness, oddball comedy and surrealism, and it seems to reach in spots for a whimsy it doesn’t always pull off.

Though imperfect, How It Ends weaves together a thoughtful and provocative series of questions. (Leif Norman/PTE)

Even if imperfect, it’s a thoughtful and provocative piece. And I won’t give away how How It Ends ends, but it is one of the most delightfully surprising conclusions I’ve ever seen at the theatre.

How It Ends is an interesting look at the end of life — and at the journey we take getting there.

Sick + Twisted Theatre’s How It Ends runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until April 28.