Playwright, teacher Alyson Grant brings Royal Vic ghosts to life

The magnificent grey limestone buildings that house the old Royal Victoria Hospital sit in all their glory on the slope of our mountain, their facades and turrets a monument to much real-life drama.

Opened in 1893, famed surgeons Wilder Penfield and Norman Bethune practiced there and generations of Montrealers benefitted from life-enhancing treatment, were born in its delivery rooms, or died in its beds. Its dedicated nurses gave comfort to thousands.

Now that it’s closed, incorporated in the new McGill University Hospital Centre at the Glen site, it is expected that most of the Royal Vic buildings will become part of the university.

Yet what about the stories that have accumulated there over the years? This fascinated Alyson Grant, a Dawson College English teacher, former Gazette journalist and active playwright, who saw in the buildings’ demise material, for dramatic treatment.

“What will happen to the ghosts in those buildings when they stop being what they are?” she asked herself.

These thoughts meshed with a story Grant heard from her sister Elaine, a nurse at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, about a dying boy who kept referring to “a red-haired girl.”

The boy seemed comforted by visions of that girl, even though she did not exist in real time. Yet there had been a red-haired girl as a patient there. Even after she died, it seemed her parents came regularly to the floor where they had spent so much time, to re-connect with their daughter. That vision, combined with the end of the Vic’s active service as a dedicated medical centre, sparked Grant’s imagination.

And so the seeds were planted for her play titled Progress! that opens October 19 and runs for the rest of the month, as Infinithéâtre’s inaugural production for the 2015-16 season. It is being staged in the lounge at Pavilion H, the old nurses’ residence.

As Grant writes in her program notes: “I let myself believe that the (red-haired) girl had been in the room, telling the boy it would be all right, that she was a caretaker of sorts for those from that room who would follow her in death.”

All hospitals might have these special companions, she mused, but if they do, what is going to happen to them once the hospital closes?

Back to “the realm of the living,” Grant wondered about the loved ones of those who had died in those buildings.

“Those spaces become sacred in a way, a place of grief, memory, homage, thoughtfulness, and, perhaps, after years, the release of grief.”

“Where would the red-haired girl’s parents now go?” she asked herself rhetorically.

So, as in the extended and ironic title of her play, Over a Century of Heritage Brought to Rest by Progress!, a narrative began to grow.

Grant, whose first play, Trench Patterns, depicted the human side of the aftermath of war, says the death of two close friends at the Royal Vic provided some of the impetus for the play’s development.

When she began imagining the script, “two vaudevillian characters walk out. They were ghosts and they see themselves as caretakers of all those who come after.

“It grows out of the absurdist genre. There is a psychological and emotional realism there, but nothing else is realistic,” Grant reflected.

Veteran Guy Sprung, who directed her first play, is directing the current production, starring K.C. Coombs, Peter Farbridge, Daniel Brochu, Jennifer Morehouse, and Howard Rosenstein. Grant says she’s impressed by how they are bringing it to life.

“They were heartbreakingly committed from the get-go, came with a deep reading of the play, very helpful questions, incarnating the characters.

“Everyone should write a play just to see that happen – It’s thrilling to see professionals do their thing with your words. It stops being yours at that point, you can say to them, ‘It’s yours now’.”

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