Canadian playwright George F. Walker doesn't need to do any special research when he writes about the urban working class, as he does in "Escape From Happiness," which is receiving its first major U.S. production at Center Stage.
"I've done everything -- construction, worked in various factories. It's just a blur -- drove a cab for a while," the 45-year-old playwright said in a recent interview from his home in Toronto.
A native of Toronto's East End -- the blue-collar section of town that supplied the omnibus title for the series of four plays of which "Escape From Happiness" is the latest installment -- Walker was driving a cab when he saw a flier soliciting new plays for Toronto's fledging Factory Theater back in 1971.
Undaunted by the fact that he had only seen one play in his life -- Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I" -- Walker wrote a script called "Prince of Naples." Not only did the Factory produce it, but in short order he became a resident playwright at the theater, which he has regarded as his artistic home ever since.
Two decades later, Walker has written 21 plays and is regarded as the leading playwright in his native land, where he has received numerous awards, including two Governor-General's Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize) and, most recently, his third Dora Mavor Moore Award (the Canadian Tony), for "Escape From Happiness."
It wasn't until the early 1980s, however, when he began his East End series of plays, that Walker turned to his own roots for subject matter. "In terms of the recognizable quotient, they're just getting closer and closer to the bone," he says of the series, which never identifies a specific city.
In the case of "Escape From Happiness," the involved plot focuses on a family facing a number of crises. At the start of the play, the younger son-in-law has been attacked by thugs, apparently without cause. Later that day, the police discover drugs in the basement and arrest the astonished mother. Meanwhile, after an absence of many years, the father, an ex-cop with a violent streak, has recently returned home unexpectedly and appears to be dying.
An attractive combination
It's a script the playwright proudly refers to as "emotionally messy." And, he expresses admiration for Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis' willingness to tackle it. "A lot of directors are looking for something tighter and easier to manage. She seemed to want this for all the other reasons," he says.
In fact, Lewis, who is also directing the production, felt so strongly about "Escape From Happiness" that she arranged a co-production with the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., where it will have a one-month engagement after its Center Stage run.
Explaining what attracted her to the script, the director cites two seemingly opposite qualities: "It's funny and it's dangerous, and it's dangerous because the human relationships are almost incendiary." She adds, "I'm comfortable with the violence in the play, and there's a lot of it. It's funny, but there's a lot of it. That's how [the characters] express themselves frequently."
Like the other East End plays, "Escape From Happiness" is a play Walker describes as a "serious comedy" or a "comedy of shared anxiety." And also like those plays, it is characterized by a ray of hope at the end.
"Even though the circumstances that surround the hope are grim, and the hope is far from unqualified, it's hopeful because the characters refuse to quit," explains Stephen Haff, a free-lance writer who has written extensively about Walker.
Walker readily concurs with this assessment, acknowledging that his writing has become more optimistic in recent years. "It's more hopeful and it's more desperate in a sense -- a really desperate need to connect with an audience," he says. "Also, for me personally, I don't want to dwell on a kind of hopeless gutter, but to find a possible way out. I think that has a lot to do with what 'Escape' is -- some kind of possibility."
In many respects, Walker is the epitome of someone who found a way out, yet at the same time, his humble origins have shaped the distinctive, highly charged language and content of his plays. A high school dropout, he admits that when he began writing, "I was entirely ignorant. I came in with the idea that you can do anything."
Walker's early plays had an absurdist, fantastical quality. His next scripts were influenced by pop culture and include a trilogy called the Power Plays, after their protagonist, a fictional detective-reporter named Tyrone M. Power.
Nine years ago, "Criminals in Love" -- the first produced East End play -- signaled a major change in direction. "I just stopped writing to be appreciated at that time," Walker says. "Not: 'Here's a little play for your enjoyment.' It's: 'Here's this messy thing I'm trying to make sense out of.' "