Ins Choi, the writer behind the hit play Kim’s Convenience (which would live on for five popular seasons as a CBC sitcom), follows that juggernaut up with a meta-theatrical take on the trials of new parenthood. Bad Parent, presented by Soulpepper, invites us into the messy lives of Nora (Josette Jorge) and Charles (Raugi Yu). These youngish professionals must negotiate a toddler-shaped wedge in their relationship named—an overtly thematic flourish—Mountain.
It isn’t just their interpersonal dynamic that is thrown off by their new parental obligations; each struggles with their own sense of personal identity. Slight, innocuous irritations cause petty squabbles, but these eventually lead to significantly more significant, destructive altercations.
Each of them interacts with the audience, trying to pull us into their confidence, get us on their side, though it didn’t feel as if either of them was actually connecting. At first, their relationship feels like a series of bits that don’t quite land. It was quite a while before I felt properly on-board.
The first moments that really engaged me were scenes between Charles and their new nanny, another Norah (with an h, though—it becomes a whole thing). Jorge plays this character too and her scenes with Yu as the nanny are the first that feel truly natural. Their connection is quick and compelling. As he discovers her talent, his own creative ambition gets rekindled.
Yu also plays a secondary role, that of Nora’s work colleague, Dale. Their scenes together are the least persuasive. Structurally, he’s nanny Norah’s counterpart, allowing Nora to rediscover her own self-worth. But this relationship isn’t nearly as nuanced or dramatically rewarding. Also, their scenes are staged very awkwardly—off to the side, stilted and haphazardly tacked-on to the main action.
Generally, though, Meg Roe’s direction is fluid and punchy. There is a deliberate artifice to everything, drawing our attention to the theatrical framework. We relate to Nora and Charles as constructs, not quite as actors playing a scene, but as regular people trying to coax us through the fourth wall into their reality.
Sophie Tang’s set and props establish a familiar world of domestic mess. Iconic IKEA storage units are the focal point, filled to the brim with a chaotic blend of adult and children’s paraphernalia. Laundry and toys spill out across the stage. This wall of stuff gets spectacularly destroyed during a climactic emotional meltdown.
For the most part, the production maintains an unassuming aesthetic. The microphones and direct address are quirky, but understated. There is one grand, fanciful segment that breaks the show’s established conventions—an epic sequence that transports us into Charles’ rock star fantasy. It’s a shock to the system and helps to shake up our expectations just before a major confrontation.
As the intense eruption of their emotions settles into a deeper mutual understanding, I began to realize that my initial detachment from Charles and Nora was most likely intentional. When they first start talking to the audience, it is with guarded showmanship. They stand self-conscious in front of their mounted microphones, trying too hard to amuse. At the end, the microphones are back, but an important shift has occurred. The mic stands are gone. Their guards are down too. No longer competing for our attention, they are now open, vulnerable and inviting.
It took me so long to warm to them because they had to warm to each other and us. When that finally happens, it is deeply moving. There are some genuine laughs along the way too. And some achingly familiar domestic wounds.
There are subtle hints that the secondary relationships—Charles and nanny Norah, Nora and colleague Dale—might develop into mutual infidelities. Without spoiling anything, I was intrigued by Choi’s low-key and delicate handling of this aspect of the story.
Will parents see themselves in Nora and Charles? I imagine so. Bad Parent has not inspired me, a childless person, to have any, but I did recognize myself and my relationship in them. Choi reveals here how insecure, dysfunctional and human people continue to be even when tackling big life stuff like parenting.