I don’t get the impression Daniel Maslany is excessively fancy or anything, but his role in O.C. Dean is an unglamorous one on the face of it. He comes straight out of playing Charles Bingley in the Globe Theatre’s Main Stage production of Pride and Prejudice. To refresh you memory, Bingley is the open, gregarious friend of the initially off-putting Mr. Darcy, and Maslany played him often with a welcoming grin, wearing a handsome period costume to boot. (And boots, too. Nice boots.)
The Dean of the title of this play, a one-person piece written and performed by Maslany for the Globe’s Shumiatcher Sandbox Series, is a far cry from that. A ways off from the headshot you see to the left as well. When the lights go up, the protagonist and storyteller for the evening is sitting in an office chair in front of shelves of uniform white boxes. Maslany, as Dean, is wearing a white, sterile sweater and matching pants. His knuckles are scabbed over and his face is worn from worry and unrest. Life is a struggle for Dean, a young man suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Characters with the disorder seem more common in culture these days, or at least closer to what I understand the experience to actually be like. Movies and T.V. aren’t exclusively filled with portrayals like Bill Murray in What About Bob? or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. As the stigma towards the disorder gradually lessens — or it’s at least better understood by a wider part of the population — there’s more room for believable characters who aren’t defined by OCD. (A recent plot on the HBO series Girls comes to mind.)
There’s a narrative appeal to the disorder as well, in that it presents something at least partially unknown to the audience while also externalizing personal fears and anxieties. Which is kind of perfect for a one-person show.
The risk run is that the piece turns into an information session on OCD, or worse a catalogue of quirks. Maslany obviously understands as much. While the show opens with background on the disorder and how it manifests itself in Dean’s life, Maslany roots it all in an individual place. Dean looks back on his parents’ first inklings of what was to come, his own slovenly younger sister and his difficult childhood years. If all that sounds like a downer, it’s not. Maslany, a gifted improviser with the Combat Improv and Middle Children improv troupes in Regina, can find the humour in a situation without breaking character or losing the reality of the situation.
While the play moves through the people in Dean’s life and towards the present it’s also working towards its ending. The subtly in this regard was impressive; without telegraphing the next plot development, Maslany keeps the audience aware of the progression of time and of the story. (There’s some clever business with some buttons that I really appreciated.)
All that’s especially important for a character who’s being performed sitting down for a good part of the show. You really have to buy into Maslany’s storytelling ability, and I did.
The ending puts a point on one of the many real dilemas of OCD. The preoccupations that take hold of its sufferers are a barrier between real interaction with other people. Dean is trapped and defined by his disorder and cut off from everything, so much so he can’t say “OCD” without adding his own name in place of the D. Finding a way to connect or to recognize the individuality of those around him means finding a way out.
O.C. Dean is running until Saturday, April 20. Go to the Globe Theatre website for more information.