Tracey Erin Smith’s The Burning Bush is one of my favourite Fringe shows of all time; the woman knows how to tell a story, or, more specifically, her story. She’s skilled enough that she has fashioned a business out of working the stories out of others, and crafting them into something engaging. I can see why. She’s warm, funny, honest and not afraid of looking a little silly or strange in service of her tale. It was with this level of expectation that I went into her latest offering, snug harbor, though I did not quite realize how personal this story was going to be.
The play is performed at The Centre, which is short for “The Centre For Training in Psychotherapy.” It is a BYOV, or “Bring Your Own Venue,” that is selected by the performer rather than the Festival. Smith has clearly selected her venue (and her “group facilitators”) to match her storytelling device: theatre as group therapy session. The Centre’s room has a curious feel- warm and cozy, but, thanks to two rows of bright globe lights in two wooden tracks traversing the centre of the room, also very “Broadway” or Honest Ed’s-esque. The lights look like a Broadway marquee, an effect I found fascinating. A friend of mine, (who is also reviewing this show, so I won’t step on his toes too much) and I were having a discussion after the performance about therapy as theatre and vice versa. Where is the line, and does one automatically work as the other?
Many of the plays we think of as “great” have come out of someone asking “What is your childhood trauma?” as Cordelia Chase would put it, and all the better if that someone is Eugene O’Neill. Often, however, therapeutic playwriting really does feel like something the playwright should have used to work out his or her issues and then put aside, really feeling like, to paraphrase how one writer put it, painting with strips of one’s skin, only it’s the audience’s skin that winds up crawling. Tracey Erin Smith does plenty of painting with pieces of herself; her show (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) explores her father’s suicide. But she has wrapped it in a neat theatrical package that ultimately makes for an experience that is both moving and educational.
Wearing a shirt that half-transforms into a black mourning shawl, Smith presents the stages of mourning, not in terms of Elisabeth Köbler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, but in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. It’s a surprisingly apt metaphor, and a more active one. Each stage is presented on a screen and explained. Also explained are warning signs for suicide, in case we want to start eying the other audience members with suspicion. This is not to say that the show is just a lecture – far from it. It’s sensitively acted and sometimes almost filmic in occasional powerful musical moments. We live through memories that are hysterically funny (many involving “the family that gets stoned together”) and the horrifying ones after the incident as Smith and her sister try to pull their lives together and slay the foes of grief, loss, and depression.
Smith is a champion at slipping into other people’s voices, taking things just seriously enough, and finding the humour in difficult and human situations, breaking the tension when things threaten to get too “heavy.” Only once in a while does the audience’s laughter take on an uncomfortable tinge, when the tension breaking is slightly too acidic or we’re not sure how to react. By the end, Smith has truly proved herself the hero of her own story, showing us touching pieces from her personal scrapbook, and we’ve gotten to know both her and the father who she’s calling out to. Smith’s therapy is the type that gets – and deserves – a standing ovation.