Emotional Poison lets the healing begin

A man and a woman sit in a bleak room under an unforgiving white light. Rain falls incessantly and thunder beats a distant tattoo. Their halting conversation begins painfully as they attempt to overcome the emotional residue of a relationship that ended a long time ago.

The two are in a holding room in the middle of a graveyard – a perfect metaphor for their lives. They have been summoned there because a poison has been seeping into the burial ground and the remains of their long dead little boy will have to be moved. It is the first time they have met in many years.

Poison is a chamber piece by the Dutch playwright Lot Vekemams that has become something of a minor sensation with productions over much of the English-speaking theatre world. The drama is from Jim Guedo’s West Side Productions as part of the Roxy Theatre’s Performance Series. It runs at the Roxy on Gateway until March 25.

Poison is melancholy, but you will find yourself enveloped in this emotionally charged and riveting play as two broken people relive a past that has rendered them traumatized. The experience of the death of their son may have crushed them, but the sadness that overtook them is tempered by a growing understanding: If only things had been different, the two might have faced it together. But they didn’t.

“We first lost a child,” he grinds out, “And then ourselves and then each other.”

Since then, they have coped in different ways. He left it all behind. He fled from her and her unending sadness to find solace and a degree of closure in re-marriage. His seeming ease of acceptance uncovers no answering spark in her. She has found no comfort or peace and has retreated behind a hard shell. She has tended the grave of her son and has been unable to move on.

“It has never stopped. He’s with me with every step I take. My grief defines me … you didn’t see it happen!” she wails from some terrible depth.

“No I didn’t,” he chokes back. “But I feel it here…. and HERE…. and HERE!!!!!!!!”

Under Guedo’s supportive direction, the bleak austerity of the play begins to warm as old memories flicker in the gloom. The two undertake the long road back toward some kind of letting-go. A wrong word or abrasive memory and it all comes crashing down again, but slowly the characters search for a way out – and the understanding that in separation, divorce or even death, you have to find that moment when you say, “This is it. It won’t get any better than this,” and move on with what you have.

Vekemans calls her characters “He” and “She.” That works well enough for the wintery first few minutes of the play but as it uncovers the basic humanity and long-lost affection of the two, the characters deserve real names of their own.

The play also remains very European and you wonder if an English, American or Canadian playwright would have found some dark humour to soften the pain.

Guedo keeps the static work moving by having his characters stalk about the room. Nathan Cuckow’s “He” may be more in control of his life though the actor generates a sub-text of lingering sorrow. Amber Borotsik’s “She” is more centered in her grief and slowly reveals how her despair became inescapable. The two performers work the shifting emotions and their own chemistry with the skill of a couple of master musicians performing an intimate Bach Sonata.

This may sound too heartrending for an entire evening but Vekemans’ dialogue is spare and few words or emotions are wasted. Sombre it is – but never maudlin. At the end of an engaging and heartfelt production, a superb writer, director and two sympathetic actors find a whisper of hope that perhaps is the beginning of an antidote for the poison that has overcome the lives of two recognizable and decent human beings.