No Harm Done

Three Plays About Medical Conditions

By Alex Rettie

by Eugene Stickland
UpRoute Books
2021/$29.95/208 PP.

Eugene Stickland has written some notable plays. Some Assembly Required was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. A Guide to Mourning and Queen Lear have both been widely produced. But he hasn’t had a new play staged in over a decade, so I was surprised to hear of the release of a new collection of his plays. When I got No Harm Done: Three Plays About Medical Conditions for review, I was wary, too: does the world really need plays about medical conditions?

Stickland and his publisher anticipated my question, because there’s more than just plays in No Harm Done. Each play is prefaced with an introduction by the Calgary author, followed by reflections on the play and the condition it addresses by doctors and others. Stickland also devotes 25 pages at the end of the book to a “dramatist’s guide” to writing plays for fundraising events (two of the plays were written for such events).

But the heart of the book is the plays. There are two sorts of experience one can have while reading a play you’ve never seen produced: either you’ll focus on the words, in the way you would while reading verse, or you’ll focus on the situation the play presents. Stickland’s work here falls firmly in the second category. The more he strays from straightforward, realistic dialogue, the less interesting his work is for a reader. There’s only one play in the book where this becomes an obstacle, but it’s an insurmountable one. The main speaker in “Fade to Light” is a narrator who speaks in a would-be elevated fashion to an audience who, in the original production, were all blindfolded to mimic the symptoms of Stargardt disease (a form of blindness). The play may have been a moving experience in person, but it’s almost unreadable on the page.

The other two plays in the book are both two-character, one-act pieces that are short on plot and deliver the message “this disease is heartbreaking and love can help but not cure.” Of the two, “Closer and Closer Apart” (the only play in the volume to have been produced on a professional stage) is by far the more polished piece. It shows an architect in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and is admirably honest in refusing to make its characters terribly likeable, a trait it shares with “The Last Dance,” a play that otherwise verges on mawkishness.

It’s hard to tell who this book is for. If you want to know more about dementia, Stargardt or Parkinson’s, you’ll learn a very little from the play and a bit more from the commentaries (Dagmar Jamieson on Stargardt was especially good). If you want to learn how to write a play, there are many resources to get you started better than the rambling guide here. And if you just like reading plays, there are better Stickland plays available as books.

Alex Rettie is a long-time reviewer for Alberta Views.

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