On the same night that Centaur opened its 2017/2018 season with Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story, the Montreal Canadiens opened their season with a game against the Buffalo Sabres. Regardless of how the Habs perform this year, the team’s legions of diehard fans will follow their every move as they once again become consumed by another hockey season. Beyond wins and losses, however, are the stories of the individual players who come together as a team. While becoming an NHL player may represent the actualization of a life-long dream for many, the road to that destiny can be quite bumpy. For Theo Fleury, that road was a nightmare.
Covering his life-story, Playing with Fire is a riveting one-man play starring Shaun Smyth as the titular character who recounts his journey from small town Manitoba to the bright lights of the NHL, all while skating around on an actual synthetic ice hockey rink mounted on stage. While there are instances of humour and exuberance throughout this story, a grim portrait is painted by the details of Fleury’s dysfunctional home life as a youth followed by the horrific sexual molestation he experienced at the hands of his coach and mentor, Graham James, and the years of substance abuse which followed.
Smyth’s performance cannot be praised enough. Despite the intermission and the generous amount of water he consumes throughout the piece, it’s a wonder that he finds the energy to continuously skate around the rink while offering an uninterrupted and incredibly nuanced monologue. He is instantly believable as both a macho jock and a vulnerable victim.
Set and lighting designer David Fraser deserves much credit as well for the creation of one of the most impressive set pieces in recent memory. Compelling on its own, the material was elevated that much more through the use of the aforementioned rink and through projections of news headlines and highlights from Fleury’s career.
Apart from themes of perseverance and redemption, Playing with Fire also features broader implications about the cult of professional hockey and sports in general. Close to a religion for many, hockey seems to consume its devoted fans and players to a point where the inherent negatives are either readily accepted or willfully ignored. Graham James may have well gotten away with his crimes had his victims not spoken out eventually, which leads one to wonder how many like him may never face the consequences for similar actions.
Playing With Fire is running until October 29. For more information and tickets, visit www.centaurtheatre.com