The ‘domino heart’ of the play’s title refers to the reusing of an already transplanted heart into the body of another recipient. One such organ connects the three actors in Matthew Edison’s play: Cara, a university professor whose husband Peter died in a car crash; Reverend Mortimer Wright, the original recipient of Peter’s heart; and Leo Juarez, a hard-living Chicago trader, who receives Peter’s heart when Wright doesn’t make it.
For a play concerned with humanity, life and connections, Edison employs an interesting structure: three twenty-minute monologues followed by a short coda. Although all three actors remain on stage throughout, they do not communicate with each other and are firmly positioned in their own worlds whenever someone else is speaking. This has the effect of emphasising the loneliness and isolation of our modern existence – which is also a theme of The Domino Heart – but the lack of interaction between the characters does make it difficult for Edison to create a dramatic theatrical experience; it’s easy to imagine The Domino Heart functioning particularly well as a script dramatised for radio. Nonetheless, there is some exceptional, skilful writing, and some very strong performances.
Amanda Hale is superb as Cara, Peter’s broken wife who is riddled with guilt over his death and has taken solace in Absolut vodka and pills. She paces her house in baggy trousers and an oversize cardigan, reliving over and over the last moments before her husband’s death. It turns out that they were driving home from a party and were in the middle of an argument because Peter had seen – at the party – the student that Cara had had an affair with ten years ago. The pain and desperation is evident on Hale’s face, in her movements, in the way she holds herself, and you can feel her exhaustion as she continues to question whether it was their argument that led to Peter’s death, whether the crash was the result of events set in motion by her affair all those years ago, or whether it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hale’s moving interpretation of Cara’s anger, grief and guilt ensures that we don’t end up thinking badly of her.
Apart from a few dodgy sentences (a face lighting up ‘like a sunflower’ then darkening when ‘a cloud came over’), I was really impressed with Edison’s powerful writing in this section. I felt he encouraged us to think anew about such clichéd phrases as ‘gone in a heartbeat’, which, accompanied by Dan Jeffries’s beating, pumping sound design, took on new resonance. Edison also movingly explores what it means to give someone your heart, both literally and figuratively, and the many ways in which that might give rise to new life, but might also destroy you, whether you are alive or dead.
Lawrence Werber is, on the surface, warm and encouraging as the Reverend Mortimer Wright. ‘Live as if you’re dying’, he exhorts us, ‘because you are’. But as his monologue progresses we realise that he, too, is suffering, though he does a better job of hiding it than Cara. I didn’t feel Werber’s performance quite equalled the strength of Edison’s writing, which continued to be full of interesting ideas, skilfully interwoven, about love, life and the heart (plus, perhaps, an underlying message of how the Church is essentially a theatre . . .).
The Reverend links love to happiness and health, likens loving and being loved to ‘winning the lottery’, and his own story about a missed opportunity for true love is incredibly moving and drives this message home. He also speaks passionately about our burning desire to live, but also the strain this ‘fire’ places on our heart (we push it, test it, exercise it, explore its limits in many different ways). The Reverend’s monologue forces us to see that life is a gift, one that we must take advantage of and exploit, but also that we have to appreciate the risks inherent in doing so. If we don’t try we will miss out on all these opportunities, but if we do then we might push ourselves – and our hearts – beyond the limits of human endurance.
The final monologue is that of Leo Juarez, a brash, ambitious Chicago trader whose first words are to tell us that, in under four minutes on the phone, he has managed to make $76,000 trading on the market without actually parting with a single dollar of his own money. Rob Cavazos gives a strong performance as Leo: bold, in-your-face, bristling with arrogance yet also riven with bitterness and insecurity born of his origins as the product of rape. Cavazos is utterly convincing as a man mired in self-hatred yet desperate to do whatever it takes to prove himself in a treacherous world that will quickly chew you up and spit you out if you don’t draw first blood.
Apart from the fact that Leo’s job is never satisfyingly clarified – is he in advertising, or finance? – the writing in this section continues to be thoughtful and powerful, linking back to the words of both Cara and the Reverend, and contributing to Edison’s multilayered view of life, love and the human heart. For Leo, the world is a ‘comatose’ organism, money is ‘oxygen’ and he is the heart, controlling the flow of oxygen that courses through the world’s ever-decaying body (he has his finger ‘on the pulse of the world, and it is racing’). Everything is composed of ‘networks and connections’: this is true of our body, our lives, the world. Yet there are many different types of connections, some of which are more important than others, and Leo’s inability to form any meaningful attachments (‘when your life’s empty you fill it with something else’, he says, and ‘you can’t come by love like you can money’) contributes to the picture that Edison has been building throughout of love as something that stops us from decaying.
The Domino Heart might, for some, give rise to debate about the recipients of donor organs – is, for example, Leo a good candidate, given his lifestyle and refusal to take his immunosuppressants? – but, for me, the play raises far more poignant and interesting questions on the transitory nature of life – it changes in an instant – and how much of who we are is built on the connections we make with others, and what happens when those connections are broken. With writing this deep and powerful, it’s a shame The Domino Heart is slightly let down by its structure, but it’s wonderful to see the Finborough Theatre continue to present us with premieres of some of Canada’s best recent plays.