Nearly a decade after it premiered at the 2012 Toronto Fringe, a new audio adaptation of Julia Lederer’s With Love and a Major Organ streams at the Primetime Festival. Over the years, the play has garnered praise in the US and Europe. With aggressive poetry, the piece unfolds like a whimsically gory fever dream of three urbanites and their wonky attempts at human connection.
Narrated by Jennifer Villaverde, the audio play features Michela Cannon (Anabel), Kaleb Alexander (George) and Fiona Reid (Mona). After a few awkward meet cutes on the subway, Anabel gives George her actual heart. As he doesn’t have one of his own, he absconds with it. Anabel, desperate to have it back, befriends his mother, Mona, who has her own troubles with the human heart—failing spectacularly in a series of comically clumsy speed dates.
The key conceit of the story is the figurative made literal. People give their very tangible hearts away or steal them. The fable-like quality of the narrative is established early. In an opening prologue, two parents with fracture-prone hearts decide to have their son’s organ removed to protect him from the heart-ache of living and loving.
The cassette-tape declarations of love that Anabel gives to George have a persuasive, old school charm. And I can appreciate all the fanciful talk of innards being wrenched and twisted and torn out. But it just never quite drew me in. The characters ramble with a quirky and strained poetic intensity I found cloying.
Despite my genuine fondness for lyrical storytelling and the cast’s elegant naturalism, so much of Lederer’s text feels contrived. The pithy musings—“You can’t Google Map your insides”—sound trite and self-conscious. I don’t feel connected to these characters and the intensity of their feelings; I am too aware of how deliberately the writing draws attention to itself.
The moments Matthew Barber’s score swelled up—especially during fantasy sequences—were the most compelling for me. But there isn’t a lasting resonance to those feelings. The music is very evocative, though the emotionality it fosters doesn’t so much come out of the story itself as provide an affective veneer.
This piece—albeit the theatrical version—has found international acclaim and audiences respond favourably to it, so I am an outlier here. Perhaps a live-action presentation of the material might strike a deeper chord with me. The physicality of performance and scenic design might make all the difference. If a Toronto production is mounted, my heart is certainly open to it.