Shaun Smyth makes a convincing Theoren Fleury.
courtesy Alberta Theatre Project

Playing With Fire plays with your heart

The play adaptation of Theoren Fleury's powerful autobiography is an emotional experience

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The career of Theoren Fleury could be described in one word: unstable. One of the most offensively gifted players to have ever played for the Flames, Fleury was fearless, talented, successful and, as revealed on stage and in his book, the owner of a relentlessly tormented soul.

Alberta Theatre Project's Playing With Fire is a one-man show based off Fleury's autobiographical book of the same name released in 2009. The book garnered national attention when the details of Fleury's sexual abuse by former junior scout Graham James were graphically revealed in Fleury's own words.

From the perspective of someone who enjoys sports and remembers the playing career of Theo Fleury, the play was extremely enjoyable. Surprisingly, there was a markedly more relaxed atmosphere than one would expect, considering the subject matter. The memories are vividly retold in the same informal tone as the book -- the Stanley Cup win in 1989, the 2002 Olympics and his career in Calgary all provide levity. Overall, the play is surprisingly fun from a hockey player's perspective.

The set is simply astounding. From the moment one enters the Martha Cohen Theatre, it is clear that, although it is a one-man show, minimalism is not the game plan. The entire play takes place with the actor on skates, gliding around on artificial ice while shooting pucks into nets on either end of the stage -- which has been transformed into a miniature rink complete with plexiglass and rink boards with advertising. The set also features jock-jams straight out of 1996, on-screen hockey trivia, a giant descending working Jumbotron and even a zamboni at intermission.

Shaun Smyth gives an absolutely riveting performance as Fleury, complete with an eerie likeness to the man himself. The honesty and pain exuded by Smyth colours the descriptions on the pages of Fleury's book, eliciting both sympathy and admiration. As described in the opening lines of the play, there is an awareness of the absurdity of the situation, a recognition that the theatre isn't where one would expect to hear the athletic exploits of a former hockey demi-god. However, the stage is the perfect medium for the retelling of a story that is this gut-wrenchingly painful and dizzyingly out of control.

Fleury's story is more than simply a diary being read out loud. It is an attempt to breach the threshold of a pressing social issue that has become only more relevant with the recent revelations of the Penn State abuses. Advocating for male sexual abuse victims has become Fleury's raison d'aitre, and occupies the vast majority of his public speaking appearances and musings on social media. This play is one more step in the attempt to not only reclaim his own life, but also to reach out to those who have been affected by sexual abuse.

A five-foot-six farm boy from Russell, Manitoba, Fleury might have had one of the most improbable playing careers of any pro hockey player. However, as detailed in the play, his own triumph over the demons from his past might be Fleury's greatest achievement, on or off the ice.