Review: Refuge (Nightwood Theatre)

Photo of Raïs Muoi and Jason Weinberg in Refuge by John LauenerToronto’s Nightwood Theatre explores the trials and tribulations of refugees seeking asylum

Nightwood Theatre‘s production of Refuge, now playing at the Tarragon Extraspace, takes on the topical issue of Canadian Immigration, both the system and the people it aims to serve. In a refreshingly raw production, it captures the deeply rooted hopes and fears of refugees and born Canadians in our collective struggle to find safety and a sense of home.

The play, written by Mary Vingoe, is based partly on the CBC documentary Habtom’s Path. It follows the story of an escaped fighter from Eritrea — an often ignored state in East Africa though it has the fourth largest group of refugees in the EU — in his attempt to achieve refugee status. We see the lawyer who takes on his case at the request of an old lover who has immigrant roots, the family that houses him, his immigrated mother and other immigrants that take him on.

Vingoe’s script is clever in many ways, but it’s most noticeable innovation is never having the hopeful refugee himself appear. It leaves the audience to make their own decisions about who he might be, and it forces us to question our own assumptions and thought processes. I found it incredibly effective in engaging the audience on a personal level.

The play contains only the elements it requires to tell the story and nothing more. The set is extremely simple, a couple tables and chairs among large canvases. These canvases served as the screens for the jaw dropping projections of oceans, forests and snow, designed by Kaitlin Hickey.

The actors performances follow suit in this tone. Though the emotions expressed across the board are complex, they are delivered with disarming sincerity that allows the audience to see the heart of the issues described. The fears are terrors, the hopes are dreams, and the confusion is enormous as every character struggles to do the right thing, not quite knowing what that means. Stand outs include Pamela Mala Sinha, who portrays a woman torn between desperately wanting to help and  fears left over from the Air India attacks, and Raïs Muoi, who plays a settled immigrant and performs a tragically beautiful monologue towards the end as snow falls on the canvasses around him.

The effect of the simplicity was that the focus was placed directly on the struggles of each individual surrounding this particular refugee case. Multiple vantage points and opinions are expressed about immigration, and Vingoe along with director Kelly Thornton make sure none of them are condemned. The aim of Refuge is to understand.

Understanding this is no easy task. How do we in Canada try and judge someones army experience from a country where it is forced upon citizens? Can we condemn them for lying in order to reach the Canadian border when the life they are leaving was full of traumas we cannot truly conceive of? Where is the line between defending our securities and indulging our fears? I left NIghtwood Theatre‘s Refuge with all these questions running through my mind, a sign their job was done well.

Refuge reaffirms that although it may be easy to make decisions about groups of people, when taken as individuals those presumptions fall away and lead us to the important questions our country is facing today. It is relevant, and powerful, and I think it is a must see for Canadians.


  • NIghtwood Theatre‘s Refuge is playing at Tarragon Theatre‘s Extraspace  (30 Bridgman Avenue) until May 8th, 2016.
  • The remaining shows are May 6th and 7th at 8 pm, as well as a 2:30 pm matinee on May 8th
  • Tickets are $40 for general admission, $35 for seniors, $30 for arts workers, and $25 for students and can be purchased online

Photo of Raïs Muoi and Jason Weinberg by John Lauener