The Ones We Leave Behind Traces the Lonely Heart

Photo by Ray Shum

Loneliness is a slow-moving tragedy. Like acid rain or a calcium deficiency, it erodes us over time.

It’s also pervasive in Canada, especially among seniors, close to 25 per cent of whom live alone. The problem may be especially acute in Vancouver, with its rainy climate and high cost of living.  Despite programs put in place to address the issue, according to a 2017 Vancouver Foundation report, “roughly one-quarter of people in Metro Vancouver are still feeling isolated”.

Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT) takes on these themes of isolation and abandonment in their new play, The Ones We Leave Behind. “In our increasingly interconnected world, how has social isolation become an epidemic, particularly among the elderly?” asks playwright, Loretta Seto, in the program notes. The Ones We Leave Behind premiered at the Cultch and plays from October 24th – Nov 3rd.

The play opens on an elderly woman, Beatrice, seated in a chair in a small apartment, faced away from the audience. TV chatter fades to static. We hear the buzz of flies.

When representatives from the Public Trustee office, Abby Chung (Agnes Tong) and Greg (Jimmy Yi), enter the apartment, Beatrice’s body has been removed, her chair covered with a white sheet. It was weeks before her body was found.  

One of the mandates of the Public Trustee’s office is to administer the estates of the deceased. It’s Abby’s first day in the field and she is ready to make a difference. The extent of Beatrice’s isolation is quickly revealed: no visitors, all bills paid by direct deposit, no human conversations for years, maybe even decades, not so much as a neighborly hello. Abby is shocked, how does someone end up like this?  She soon unearths Beatrice’s diary; maybe this will hold the answers.

As an old hand, Greg is less concerned with the meaning of it all and more with getting through their caseload. In his 36-years on the job, he’s made it a rule to avoid emotional attachments. Abby and Greg’s eager-rookie meets crusty-veteran dynamic is believable, if a tad predictable.

Thankfully, we are next introduced to Abby’s Mom (Alannah Ong), who is fiery, candid, and hilarious. The mother-daughter relationship between Ong and Tong is great, bickering underpinned by love and duty.

In their first scene together, Abby complains about her mother’s smoking and warns of the dangers of second-hand smoke. “Show me!” demands her mother. When Abby produces some evidence on her phone, her mother waves it away: “Ah, too small! How you read something so small?”

In many ways, Alannah Ong ran away with the show. For one, she’s got the peculiar grammar of English as a second language just right. Combined with her searing honesty, this made for some of the best moments of the play, as when she speaks with Abby’s boyfriend, Kyle (Brahm Taylor), referring to him as “Ambulance-driver man.”

“I’m a paramedic,” Kyle huffs.

“Hmm, better if you were a doctor,” she responds.

These comedic moments are precious because our protagonist, Abby, is the serious type, speaking many of her lines through a clenched jaw. She is often upset at those around her for not meeting her standards: her supervisor Greg for lacking empathy, her mother for her stubbornness, her boyfriend Kyle for ignoring boundaries. In each situation, she has a point, but her moral pique can be wearisome.

There is a clear-cut connection between Abby’s emotional investment in Beatrice’s story and her underlying feelings of abandonment, a result of her father disappearing to China when she was only a child. Her drive to find someone, anyone, who knew Beatrice, arises out of her bewilderment in how people lose each other along the way.

Because of this, she always seems to be looking for a reason to be disappointed in those around her. Actress Agnes Tong does a good job of making Abby feel authentic, but you may or may not find her likable.

The Ones We Leave Behind opens with all of the characters doing ok. Abby has been demoted but seems resigned to her new post. Greg has lost his wife, but he is toughing it out. Abby’s mother has health problems but seems stable. Kyle is looking for more intimacy but seems content enough with Abby.

As the play progresses, these fault lines widen, loneliness in the spaces between. There are, as the playwright notes, “no easy answers”. For that reason, and for the depth of its search, The Ones We Leave Behind is worth seeing.