VANCOUVER—Everything about Rick: The Rick Hansen Story feels just right. A straightforward script, strong performances and a superb stage design make this little gem a shining example of theatre for young audiences.
Kudos to Manitoba Theatre for Young People, one of Canada’s best troupes producing for youth, for finding a way to bring Hansen’s remarkable story to life without getting all gooey about it. Thanks to funding from the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad, new generations of young Canadians can come to understand why we old-timers get teary-eyed at the thought of Hansen’s heroic Man in Motion quest a quarter-century ago.
Dennis Foon’s long-lauded skills as a playwright with a penchant for getting kids interested in theatre are much in evidence as he cleverly focuses on Hansen’s teenage years. First an idyll of outdoor fun with a fishing rod and superstar status as a high-school jock, life for the handsome lad became a nightmare of dealing with a snapped spinal cord.
And then, as in any good transformational tale, comes Hansen’s youthful epiphany that life is not only not over, but about to take an amazing new route right ‘round the globe. Foon lays out a basic chronological map of these events and spins it, with elegant simplicity, into the sort of thoroughly believable slice-of-life dramedy that the eight-to-18 set should lap up with relish.
Portraying Hansen as a warm and generous guy, Kyle Jespersen has clearly done his homework about paraplegia. Working with wheelchair consultant Alex McLean, the actor not only shows off sharp skills on wheels, but goes to great physical lengths for an exhaustingly convincing portrayal of what it means when one’s legs don’t work.
Jespersen is joined by Charlie Gallant as Don Alder, Hansen’s best buddy. A recurring riff sees Don and Rick distanced by the accident that both survived, Don without a scar—except the deep guilt he feels about what happened.
Knowing his audience has no patience for what it would perceive as phoney emotion, Foon keeps it real in this conflict. Similarly, a high-school dance has Hansen heading toward romance in a sweet way (Jespersen wheelie-waltzing with Genevieve Fleming), but the scene is so engaging on a basic physical level that even a kiss—always an “eewwww” moment in theatre aimed at young audiences—didn’t elicit a sound from the student audience at a matinee I attended.
None of this dynamism in the script would work without two other key considerations. Alder is a world-class “finger-style” guitarist, and his electric style—with or without amplification&mdashis woven through the show. While it’s Gallant showing off his own great skill with the strings, all this great music (apart from some licks of familiar rock hits) comes from Alder, who emerges from the wings at the end to reveal the wizard behind the magic.
Finally, it all comes down to Deco Dawson and his astonishing production design to make this a landmark piece of theatre. William Chesney’s set is a complex grouping of panels and platforms carefully structured so it can be transformed by Dawson’s video projections into, well, anything—a forest road, a gym or, across the floor of the stage, a fast-flowing creek.
That’s where Rick Hansen comes close to drowning, in a remarkable scene that sees Jespersen falling from his chair and flailing in seemingly deep waters. One word comes to mind to describe this moment, and indeed the whole show:
HANSEN STORY BELONGS ATOP MEDAL PODIUM
BY MORLEY WALKER, WINNIPEG FREE PRESS—27/02/2010
Young people’s theatre doesn’t get more meaningful than this.
Rick: The Rick Hansen Story delivers a throat-catching message about the importance of perseverance and a positive attitude, using life lessons imparted by Canada’s most famous wheelchair athlete.
The 70-minute production, which had its world premiere Friday night at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, boasts tremendous performances by its four-member cast, especially Vancouver’s Kyle Jespersen in the title role. Most Canadians know the facts of Hansen’s inspiring 1980s World in Motion tour, but veteran Vancouver playwright Dennis Foon, a frequent MTYP contributor and arguably Canada’s best youth playwright, goes back to the hero’s high school days in 1970s small-town B.C., where he was a born leader before the accident that changed his life forever.
This makes the proceedings particularly relevant for its target audience, kids 11 and up. Rick also uses some innovative computerized video techniques, ideal for a media-saturated generation. The drama features front and rear projection of filmed scenery onto an austere grey-white stage, bare except for a riser in the centre and layered scrims on either side.
Jespersen’s imitation of a young man with no feeling below his waist is uncannily accurate from a physical perspective. He also impresses on an emotional level, finding not just Hansen’s core of positive energy but also the despair any teenager—indeed, any human—in his situation would feel from time to time.
As his best friend Don, Vancouver-based Charlie Gallant offers a painfully accurate portrayal of an insecure adolescent. B.C.-based Genevieve Fleming and Winnipegger James Durham round out the foursome with expert handling of the numerous supporting roles. Cast members lead the audience into periods of tremendous emotion. And Foon’s script, which concisely covers a full range of action and empathy in a tight time frame, is particularly impressive.
Of course, it’s no surprise this is a first-rate show given some of the backstage talent involved, among them Winnipeg director Robb Paterson, set designer Bill Chesney, lighting designer Itai Erdal and composer Cathy Nosaty. After it closes in Winnipeg, Rick moves to Vancouver in time for the 2010 Paralympic Games.
It’s worthy of Olympic gold.