“Sean Emberley, in the title role, is engrossing, so completely does he inhabit this complex, confusing but ultimately compelling character.”
“His performance is like a poem. … He’s like the face of everyman with a mental illness.”
#1: WHATSON Mar 11, 2020 by Jeff Mahoney The Hamilton Spectator “A moving look at schizophrenia”
Walter is a one-man play that delves into the challenges, drama and uneasy truce with life that define the experience of a man who has schizophrenia.
I’m not quite decided whether David Laing Dawson’s play “Walter” puts us inside Walter James Cross’s head or puts him inside of ours. In a way, it’s one and the same.
What I’m sure of is that, once it’s happened, if you’re like me, you’ll find it hard either to get yourself out of his head or to put him out of yours. That’s interesting because, as Walter James Cross states in the first line of the play, “I have schizophrenia.”
And it’s the power of “Walter” that still, long after I’ve left the theatre, the way he experiences the world is very much with me — to the extent that I can understand it, and the play enlarges that extent.
Sean Emberley, in the title role, is engrossing, so completely does he inhabit this complex, confusing but ultimately compelling character. You feel not so much that you’re seeing him onstage but passing him on the street.
Emberley’s remarkable achievement is that he lifts our engagement with Walter beyond the stare of curiosity, albeit sympathetic, into a trance in which we begin to identify with the struggle of his being.
It’s partly the play of his eyes and the mobile features of his face and his movements across the stage, by turns agitated and sedate. It’s also his voice, wounded but also strangely hypnotic. And aside from his own, there are the voices “in his head,” as the expression goes, which we get to hear along with him, thanks to the “soundscape” by Dave Gould.
The soundscape consists of recorded voice, music and other aural effects that essentially take what’s “in his head” and project it outward so that it seems to float around the theatre, echoey, almost submarine, reverberating through space, as though dislocated from him.
This sound disembodiment breaks down the space of the self and the spatial metaphors behind such idioms as “out” of one’s head or “inside” one’s head. They make us question this construct of identity as a continuity of integrated thought and feeling, separate from what is not “I.”
The play begins with Walter sitting at a simple table, on which a corps of pill bottles are almost sacramentally arrayed, his medications — Walter names them all.
Before long we hear the voice. We’re introduced to obsessions, and then Walter takes us through his day, in effect, his anxieties in a coffee shop, his loud humming, the attention of two police officers. There’s a visit to emergency, episodes of paranoia; detours into his past, the difficulty of high school, his parents, then back to present where’s he’s immobilized on the street.
We get a vivid sense of the immense difficulties of Walter’s life but also of his humanity and his uneasy truce with life, the pills clacking in his pockets, the squeak of his running shoes, his shadow dilating and contracting against a black curtain.
We feel his being as a kind of cavernous train station or airport, full of muffled echoes and vague distances, where not everything properly belongs to him. Like the voices. They’re at once inside and outside, apart from him, all over the place and nowhere at the same time.
The play is informed by playwright Dawson’s 50 years in psychiatry, treating schizophrenia. And the words are lit with both knowledge and compassion, which comes through as Walter soliloquizes himself over the barriers we put up against the “different.” This very powerful production is directed by Ronald Weihs.
#2: Walter: Theatre Review by Tamara Kamermans
View Magazine, VIEW MARCH 12 – 25, 2020
I’m pleased to say that this production of Walter, written by David Laing Dawson, has been created in collaboration with [Artword Theatre’s] Judith [Sandiford] and Ron Weihs and the Gallery on the Bay, which is co-owned by the playwright. It’s an exciting new beginning for Judith and Ron as they have moved out of the original Artbar space downtown but are clearly still planning on making an impact in the Hamilton theatre scene.
Their home for this production and potential future productions is St. Andrew’s Hall at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in the core of Hamilton on James and Jackson. It’s a beautiful space and works particularly well for this one man show which follows the journey of Walter James Cross, the schizophrenic protagonist of the production.
Playwright Dawson actually created Walter as a film nearly 20 years ago. The current production is the script re-imagined for the stage by director Ronald Weihs and local actor Sean Emberley. Dawson was the former director for the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital and has used his some odd 50 years of observation and real life experience to create the compelling portrait of Walter and his journey through schizophrenia and the medical system.
Director Weihs lights the space evocatively as we follow the recollections of illness. David Gould creates a haunting soundscape that floats in an out like Walter’s recall. Blocking is relatively basic and perhaps some emphasis on segues between memories would help the general flow since it is 80 minutes in total. It’s the difference between feeling like you are hearing a speech and you can tune out and hearing a story that you don’t want to miss. That said Emberley is enigmatic enough to maintain the focus but it wouldn’t hurt to help him a little.
In the central role, he is captivating as he embodies the many ages of Walter. As a young man, we see his angst and then terror upon realizing his trajectory into the mental health system, then, as he ages, his new struggles with the system and the balance of medication. Emberley never once over sentimentalizes; instead, he allows the emotional reaction to resonate with the audience member. He simply tells the story as a grippingly real person. He leaves the richness and the ironies to his audience to ruminate.
His performance is like a poem. It’s presented with simplicity but has as many meanings as there are seats in the audience. He’s like the face of everyman with a mental illness. We’ve all seen him or known a piece of his story at one time in our lives. If you’ve worked in retail, or food service, or security, you’ve met him every day on the job. You’ve asked yourself what he’s doing and why or where he goes at night. Sometimes it seems he doesn’t even see you even though you knew him in high school. He begs for money and mutters strange things when you walk by him.
Emberley’s Walter is a theatrical vessel through which we can all better understand our personal interactions with the mentally vulnerable. It’s impossible not be emotionally touched by his presentation and each and every audience member will be remembering their own Walter as the stage lights go down.