Vancouver playwright Meghan Gardiner explores the concept of "love bombing"—manipulating someone by lavishing them with gifts and attention—in a powerful musical about a rising young country-rock musician and a grieving mother who is desperately trying to find her missing daughter. When Lillian (Deb Pickman at her most heart-wrenching) interrupts Justine Chambers (Sara Vickruck, whose vocals alone are worth the ticket price) during her soundcheck and demands to hear her favourite song, it launches both women on an emotional journey through Justine's lyrics—which, as Lillian quickly proves, were written by Lillian's missing daughter and may contain clues to her disappearance.
Love Bomb tackles the difficult conversation about coercion tactics used on girls to lure them into the sex trade, but I'm not entirely convinced Gardiner's script is successful in conveying what it means to be "love bombed", and why so many young women are seduced in this way by predators. In part, this is because of the way Gardiner has chosen to tell this story—as a victim of love bombing, it makes sense that Justine would be reluctant to disclose her experiences to Lillian, and it makes just as much sense that Lillian would be unable to understand what her own daughter has gone through or why she has made the decisions she has made. However, because Justine is sharing her experiences well after the fact, and after having "gotten out", there's an emotional distance that, while being very realistic, prevents the audience from experiencing how powerful love bombing can be. Justine hates her former "boyfriend" and understands what happened to her. Given the time and place she is at, it all makes sense, but we never get to see how in love with him she must have been at one point. It's too easy for a viewer to believe that if she had been in the same situation, she wouldn't have fallen for the love bomb.
But while it's uncertain as to whether Love Bomb succeeds as a public service announcement, there is no question that it succeeds as a piece of theatre. The music is absolutely fantastic—Charles and Gardiner have created songs that are believable as radio hits, a feat that few achieve (just watch a recent episode of ABC's Nashville if you want to experience the frustration of being told that a character has written a chart-topping song only to hear one mediocre stanza and chorus), and Vickruck has the pipes and stage presence to be equally believable as a country-rock star. The mystery is well-paced, and the use of lyrics to tell the story is compelling. Deb Pickman blends guilt and anger and hope and denial together in a stunning performance that is both painful to watch and impossible to tear your eyes away from.
Love Bomb is a darkly moving piece of theatre that resonates beyond the final chord—and is guaranteed to spark a conversation. Strongly recommended.
Love Bomb will be at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver until October 10, 2015.
Produced by Shameless Hussy Productions
Book and Lyrics by Meghan Gardiner
Directed by Reneé Iaci
Original Songs by Steve Charles