In 1998, Canadian playwright David Gow, then living in Toronto, wrote aÂ two-character collision of good and evil. He was satisfied to have it successfully produced locally and thought that would be the end of it. Yet it continues to be produced in a wide variety of cities. Gow is grateful but disturbed that the subject matter is tragically still relevant today.
Cherry Docs, helmed by Kalo Gow, starring Alan Blumenfeld and Mark Cecil (Sep 6, 13) or Andrew Walker (Sep 20, 27, Oct 6, 13), plays for six performances only at Topanga-based Theatricum Botanicum, in the intimate S. Mark Taper Pavilion, in conjunction with Theatricum’s 2012 summer season at its two-stage facility.
“The play was inspired by a beating suffered by a gay friend of mine, a classmate at Concordia University in Montreal,” Gow recalls. “He showed up one day with a huge bruise all around his eyes.Â He told me he had been kicked in the face while he was sitting on the steps just outside a gay bar.Â At that time, during the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was quite an active skinhead population in Montreal and they were pointedly going after gay men. This was also true in Toronto, where there were a number of hate-inspired events over the years. There was one horrific incident where an elderly man, a holocaust survivor, was set upon by three or four young guys.Â He would have been beaten to death but was saved by some passersby. And, unfortunately, this legacy of white supremacist neo-Nazism continues.”
The dramatic tension within this play is set up before a line of dialogue is spoken.Â Mike Downey (Cecil or Walker), a self-avowed neo-Nazi skinhead has been accused of a racially motivated murder, having stomped to death an immigrant man. Downey’s weapon was a pair of steel-toed, cherry-colored Doc Marten boots, a signature part of skinhead attire. Downey’s defense attorney is Danny Dunkelman (Blumenfeld), a court-appointed liberal Jewish lawyer. Played out in one act, divided by six lawyer/client conferences leading up to Downey’s trial, the lawyer realizes early on what he is up against when the contemptuous skinhead avows, “In an ideal world, I’d see you eliminated.Â But in this one, I need you more than anyone else.”
“I look at it as a mythic template for conflict,” Gow says. “These are two people who are diametrically opposed in views, yet the circumstances in life call to them to work together. Inherently, that is an interesting situation. The liberal Jewish lawyer is an archetype that exists. I have encountered him — the well-educated, well-turned-out Jewish man in his late 40s or 50s who feels he has a debt to society and has a social conscience.Â By his nature, living in a democracy, he believes even the most heinous of us deserves a fair trial, and he’ll work to the utmost of his ability to achieve that, even for this murderous skinhead.”
Cherry Docs has found receptive audiences over the years.Â In 2008 alone,Â 10 years after its initial staging in Toronto, the play hadÂ 10 separate productions inÂ 10 different cities, including New York, London, Berlin, Krakow, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Montreal and other Canadian cities.Â In 2010, there was a highly acclaimed staging in Boston.Â Gow estimates there have been more than 100 productions.
“This is not a hard play to produce,” Gow notes. “It’s challenging from the standpoint of acting, but it is a play that doesn’t require an enormous amount of resources. Interestingly, even though the subject matter is very volatile, I haven’t had any real negative reactions or had audience members walk out on it. There was one exception. In 2000, at the US premiere at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (featuring David Strathairn) — at a talkback after the play — I did have a gentleman stand up and state it was the biggest pile of shit he had ever seen in his entire life.”
Born in 1964, Gow credits an outstanding Canadian public school education for his interest in the arts and playwriting in particular. “When I was in the second grade, my teacher came to me and said, “˜We need for you to write a play.’ So, I did.Â Although I never attended a fine arts high school, per se, I did go to a good high school called Glebe in Ottawa. There was a lot of fine arts study within a very broad curriculum there. One could study filmmaking, animation, writing. There was a lot of live theater and music in the school. You could also study German, Italian and, of course, French. And there was a lot of liberty within the school to do what we wanted to do.Â Complementing my education, my parents were interested in the arts and certainly facilitated my interest.”
By the age of 16, before he was out of high school, he was performing regularly around town, performing in clubs where he couldn’t even buy a drink. Not restricting himself to performing standup, Gow indulged also in characterizational monologues and political commentary that he had written. Eventually, he started performing in a comedy troupe, which incorporated a lot of improvisation. He credits his extensive study of improvisation as laying a strong foundation for his career as a writer. From there, he studied at Second City in Toronto. He recalls, “I even shared a bill with Jim Carrey at this club, Yuck Yucks, in Toronto, before Carrey became famous. Even back then, he had his own entourage, people who would follow him about.”
Subsequently, Gow studied theater at Concordia, later obtaining a masters degree at York University in Toronto.Â He has gone on to write such produced works as Bea’s Niece (1999) and off-off Broadway-produced Arrivals (2007).Â Other plays include The Flight of Peter Pumpkineater, Relative Good, and The Friedman Family Fortune. In 2007, Gow co-directed his own screenplay for the film version of Cherry Docs, titled Steel Toes, starring Strathairn and Andrew Walker, who will be the second actor to play the role in Theatricum’s production.
Gow’s “main home is in Quebec, outside of Montreal,” he says. “I also have aÂ place in the Los Angeles area, but that isn’t my main home, yet. The reason Cherry Docs is being produced at Theatricum Botanicum is a result of my meeting Peter Alsop, the husband of Theatricum’s artistic director, Ellen Geer. I met him at a garage sale here in Topanga. It was all by chance. My whole career as a playwright has come by chance because I don’t promote my plays as I should. I don’t have an agent, as I should. I should really put a little more effort, I suppose, but I am really happy with the results I’ve had.”
Cherry Docs, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.,Topanga. Thursdays, September 6, 13, 20 and 27, and Saturdays, October 6 and 13 at 8 pm. A panel discussion will follow each performance. Tickets: $20. 310-455-3723 www.theatricum.com.
***All Cherry Docs production photos by Ian Flanders