Chet Greason, Staff reporter
Seeing the Stratford Festival’s production of Waiting for Godot reminded me of my former job as a personal support worker (PSW) for people with special needs. Allow me to explain:
Waiting for Godot concerns four characters, two in particular, stuck waiting along a lonely road with nothing but a tree, a rock, the moon, and each other to keep them company, so isolation is the first link shared by those with special needs. (On an unrelated note, the Stratford production’s moon appears to be made from a shower poof ... an odd choice there.)
The two protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, are beings of impulse and instinct; characters that are meant to embody what lies at the bottom of our own psyches.
Vladimir and Estragon reminded me of a number of individuals I once worked with as a PSW; individuals who had many societal expectations of etiquette and other such trivialities stripped away, and who were driven by basic impulses involving hunger, boredom, and loneliness.
The petulant and needy Estragon (Stephen Ouimette), whines about his sore feet, begging to go home. His clothes, far too big for him, reinforces his childlike nature.
Meanwhile Vladimir (Tom Rooney) comes off as a nine-year-old left in charge, trying his best to emulate what he perceives to be an adjusted adult. He denies himself the same impulses that plague Estragon, lacking the understanding to properly explain why they must continue to wait for the ghostly Godot yet steadfastly insisting they do so. Fittingly, he appears to have outgrown his clothing, which are too small for him.
The two-act play is also dotted by appearances of the cruel and sadistic Pozzo (Brian Dennehy) and the submissive and thoroughly miserable Lucky (Randy Hughson), whose monologue must be seen and heard to be believed. There’s also a boy (alternately played by Ethan Ioannidis and Noah Jalava), who acts as Godot’s envoy.
These characters desperately find ways to fill the time so boredom will not overtake them. They insult one another, discuss the Bible, and contemplate suicide.
Awkward silence is practically a character itself; the audience’s reaction to it simply more blocking. Every solitary cough is like a scripted statement; every reaction a valid contribution. I, for one, will admit to drifting off ever-so briefly during the first act. And the pair of women sitting next to me who got up during intermission and never came back? Did they leave the building? Or switch seats to get a different perspective? It’s all part of the Godot experience.
The last time I saw Waiting for Godot was at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, where two actors played the parts of Vladimir and Estragon over and over again for 54 hours straight. I saw two performances initially, then stopped in again a day and a half later to observe the actors right where I left them.
The play seems meant to be performed cyclically. After all, the second act is just more of what we saw in the first. The premise begs to be repeated ad nauseam as a statement to futility.
As I watched Stratford’s production, I began seeing Vladimir and Estragon as fish in a bowl, complete with a solitary plant and rock to entertain them. (Estragon’s poor short-term memory, like that of a goldfish, reinforced this.) Like kept fish, they’re left to fill time until death takes them. Is it really so different from the way we spend our days?
The play also toyed with clockwork imagery; that shower puff moon clacking away on a rotor before and after each act to illustrate the passing of time. In this way, the play really does become an endless loop of repetition...at least until the tension wanes and someone forgets to wind the key.
Repetition is another reason the play reminded me of being a PSW. Anyone who regularly associates with people with conditions like profound autism knows that repetition plays a big part in your interactions. The same stories and phrases are repeated, or sometimes requested, over and over again. Routines become an inarguable factor of life, akin to breathing.
These traits we observe in those that we label "special" are one and the same with our own drives and habits...it just seems more noticeable in the way they act upon them.
Likewise, Waiting for Godot speaks to our base fears and needs; that nagging discontent with the present; of being in a constant state of transition, either waiting for the future or dwelling in the past.
Our first reaction to Godot, like many people’s initial reactions to those with special needs, are similar: We label it weird, or complain that it makes us uncomfortable.
What we’re being faced with is a mirror image. Ignoring it is unhealthy and ill-advised.
In short, open your mind. Choose to spend time with the marginalized of society. God knows they could use the company.
And see Waiting for Godot. You’ll be better for it.