Coming of age, a bit late

A semi-paralyzed mom is being dragged through the front door of her house on a plastic toboggan because her wheelchair won’t fit.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

A semi-paralyzed mom is being dragged through the front door of her house on a plastic toboggan because her wheelchair won’t fit.

Confused stroke victim Catherine is screaming and crying, while her slacker sons — who are pulling the toboggan — blame each other for the predicament and bicker about how they can possibly take care of her at home.

This bizarro moment halfway through the play Choke literally leaves you undecided about whether to laugh uncomfortably or drop your jaw in dumbfounded disgust.

By this point, there’s absolutely nothing in this dysfunctional family drama by Edmonton playwright Cathleen Rootsaert that gives any indication that perpetual adolescents Greg and Dylan will be remotely capable of looking after their helpless mom’s needs.

Catherine’s underachieving boys are shown playing yet another zombie game on the X-Box in the first scenes of this powerful Against The Wall Theatre production, which opened on Thursday at the Scott Block in downtown Red Deer.

Older brother Greg, portrayed by Paul Sutherland, has just moved back in with his mother, who’s then a still-capable nurse, after being kicked out by his girlfriend for setting August 2014 as a wedding date after what’s already been a six-year engagement.

The 30-something has also managed to turn his part-time grocery store job into a 15-year career.

Younger brother Dylan, played by Steve Charlton, talks about upgrading his high-school physics marks so he can eventually shoot for a PhD in astronomy. In reality, the 27-year-old can’t get himself down to the employment office to apply for any kind of job at all. And his “girlfriend” is someone he met over the Internet who lives in Korea.

Yes, the two brothers, along with their classic enabler mother, Catherine, have a fairly screwed up dynamic.

Yet through the miracle of modern family, they manage to come through for each other — more or less. And it’s this heartwarming aspect of the play — along with three bravura performances — that make Choke well worth watching, despite some slow moments early on.

While the script takes a while to set up how useless Greg and Dylan are as far as cooking, cleaning or getting off the couch go (Dylan spends the first half of the play wearing the same plaid pyjama bottoms day and night), the pace picks up right after Catherine’s stroke.

At that point, Choke, directed by Jenna Goldade, becomes absolutely riveting theatre.

Tanya Ryga’s wonderful portrayal of the well-meaning mother, who only belatedly understands the damage she’s caused her sons with her low expectations, is the heart of this play.

Not only is Ryga painfully believable as a stroke victim frustrated by her inability to communicate, she also makes Catherine immensely likable because her indulgent love for her sons is so apparent.

Catherine’s boys are no saints. And that’s a strength of Rootsaert’s comic drama, which contains a whole range of grey shades, instead of just black and white.

Greg clearly has fewer coping skills than Dylan. And Sutherland, to his credit, neither over- nor under-plays Greg’s deficiencies, from his big brother put-downs of Dylan, to his rage over his mother’s infirm state.

Even when Greg is in danger of becoming the play’s villain, Sutherland’s portrayal allows us to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Charlton creates a lot of audience empathy for Dylan through his character’s transformation from someone who’s weak to someone who’s all too aware of his own shortcomings. As Dylan writes to Mae-Li in Korea of his struggles with isolation and loneliness in his role of caregiver, we feel for him.

But it’s Dylan’s sense of responsibility towards his mom that helps him grow as a person.

A child psychologist once wrote that regardless of whether parents are overly lenient or too strict, chances are their children will become reasonably coherent adults as long as they feel loved. That certainly seems to be the case here.

The play continues to Nov. 13, with proceeds from pay-what-you-can-Tuesday donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Tickets are available at the door or can be reserved through