COLUMN: ‘A play about the Wettlaufer tragedy is exactly what this society needs’

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By Joe Belanger, London Free Press

I’m still thinking about what happened to me Aug. 7.

That night, I walked into the Blyth Festival theatre to watch the world premiere of In the Wake of Wettlaufer.

Beyond watching compelling theatre, I was looking into a mirror at my own life and hearing actors talk about issues I’ve either had to confront directly, or watch others grapple with, issues that remain unresolved, or ended badly.

What if my family, my wife’s family — everyone — could see this play? I’d suggest it could change lives, if not put fear into their hearts; that it would force them to revisit discussions, decisions and painful memories, or even inspire them to action to change how we, as individuals and a society, deal with our vulnerable elderly.

It might even make everyone understand the importance of forgiveness.

That is what happened to me Aug. 7 and I feel compelled to share my experience because there are people out there — people whose lives were shattered by nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer’s confession to eight murders over a decade — including Londoner Susan Horvath’s father, Arpad, killed by Wettlaufer in 2014.

Horvath, who quietly protested the opening, said in an interview last month the play is a “disgrace” and that she was “shocked” the company was making a play about a “disaster and a tragedy . . . . selling vulnerability, selling emotion, because they have to sell tickets.”

The play “revictimizes” families of those who died and their pain “seems to be totally disregarded,” she added.

Unless you are Susan Horvath, or any member of a family victimized by Wettlaufer, you really can’t appreciate her impact and I wouldn’t for a second criticize Horvath or anyone who feels the same way.

But I will disagree.

If you see the play, you at least have a chance to understand their grief, their pain and Wettlaufer’s far-reaching impact. You can at least share their concern about our long-term care system and understand why Justice Eileen Gillese concluded the system was, and is, vulnerable and needs to be changed.

That’s why I can’t agree with Horvath, or anyone else who suggests it’s too early for such a play, or that Blyth was trying to profit off the tragedy, or  being insensitive to the victims.

The play doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of Wettlaufer — there is no character bearing her name, no scenes of her carrying out her evil deeds — but there are audio recordings of testimony and interviews with family, experts and, amazingly, Gillese’s findings and comments.

What the play explores is the nitty-gritty of a family coping with an aging parent suffering from dementia and all the emotions and conflicts that consume families caught up in such circumstances, how their world was turned upside down and how their grieving returned years later by Wettlaufer’s revelations. Was their father one of her victims?

As I wrote in the review, it was the Blyth Festival doing what it does best, bringing a Canadian story to the stage, the festival’s primary mandate since it was founded 45 years ago. Playwrights Kelly McIntosh and Gil Garratt, the festival’s artistic director, took a difficult, dark moment of our history and presented it tastefully, with incredible sensitivity to the victims and a clear vision and purpose: To inform and propel change.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer is the best kind of theatre, because it doesn’t just make you laugh, cry, get angry, cheer or smile; it makes you think and take stock of your life and relationships, especially with family. It’s great theatre because it holds up a mirror to the audience. It’s great theatre because it’s a call to action on an issue — the treatment of our growing population of aging and ailing seniors and a long-term care system that remains vulnerable to abuses, even murder.

Blyth has staged several tragic stories within two years of resolution in the courts, including the 2017 hit, The Pigeon King, about Arlan Galbraith’s Ponzi scheme that duped many people across the region out of their life savings, and 2000’s Stolen Lives: The Albert Walker Story, about the murderer and embezzler.

Their mandate is not one built on profit. Blyth is a non-profit charity that survives on a combination of ticket revenue, government and private donations. Nobody’s pockets are getting filled “revictimizing” the families of Wettlaufer’s victims.

Sadly, for those people who share Horvath’s pain and concern, the Wettlaufer case is much bigger than their personal pain, the issues at stake far greater and the impacts more far-reaching than their personal spheres.

If not for Blyth, Wettlaufer already would be well on her way to obscurity, a dark little footnote of history, and the issues that allowed her to get so much attention and cause so much pain would continue to fester.

It’s not unheard of for issues to evaporate with the news cycle and be forgotten, overtaken by some other serial killing or tragic event.

Of course, the fear for most of us is that Gillese’s inquiry findings will gather dust on a shelf, never to see the light of change.

It is on all of us to keep the pressure on government and the long-term care industry to institute the changes necessary to prevent people like Wettlaufer from having the opportunity to infect the world with their evil.

A play about the Wettlaufer tragedy is exactly what this society needs. Perhaps it even should be mandatory viewing.

Change comes when the public is aware and concerned about an issue. In the Wake of Wettlaufer brings the issue into sharp focus, reminding us that there were far more people victimized than just eight or 12 families. It reminds us that these issues affect us all, because we all have aging parents or grandparents whom we love and want to protect.

There are many ways to bring about change. Theatre is one.