Fringe Toronto: Hanger

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I was lucky enough to catch the second-last staging of Hilary McCormack’s Hanger on Saturday July 11th as this year’s Fringe Festival came to a close on Sunday. Directed by Joshua Stodart, this little play about two sisters and the mental illness which appears to run in their family took over the St. Vladimir Theatre for 60 intense minutes at a time all festival long!

The show stars the incredible Tennille Read as Kat, and the very lovely and talented Hilary McCormack in dual roles as Kat’s psychiatrist and her younger sister, Liz. The chemistry between these two performers is a delight to behold. They occupy the stage together and move about it as though they were one fluid whole, and given the audience response, I’m certain I was not the only one who didn’t ever want it to end.

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Kat explodes into her therapist’s office to start things off, and from that moment, we are drawn into her world of anxieties, medication, confusion, pain and hope. Kat is an eccentric, hilarious character who is instantly likeable (there’s a line about a raincoat that still has me laughing), but obviously troubled – to say the least. Read shines from start to finish, bringing to life a character who seems so real and relateable, even as she’s often not sure of reality herself.

As the doctor, McCormack’s quiet authority during the session is interchanged through sudden and fluid shifts in and out of the character of Liz. Kat’s sometimes not sure who she’s talking to, but it’s clear that her sister’s suicidal plans haunt Kat’s inner world. As Kat struggles to understand what being suicidal feels like, she stumbles back and forth through time – to moments from her past shared with her sister (affected in part by their mentally ill mother and absentee father), and back again to the present session with her psychiatrist. What begins as a funny surface-level conversation at the start of the session quickly spirals down into something much darker and more frightening.

The audience must pay attention to keep up, and hold on tight if we are to accompany Kat on this journey through her mind and memories, as it doesn’t take long for the revelations to come fast and furious. Kat and Liz both lay it all out on the line, though it is Kat’s struggle to find answers – and sometimes the right responses to the situations in which she finds herself – that keep us ensconced inside her broken and troubled mind.

The play screeches to a halt as jarringly as it began, and through it all, dangling from the back of the stage like a silent predator awaiting its next prey, is a large black noose.

I hope this show gets a run at other festivals so that more people have a chance to see it. Hanger is definitely not an easy watch, but it sheds light on mental illness in a whole new way, and that alone makes it a necessary one.

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