It takes up to six minutes before anoxia—the absence of oxygen—is fatal. Cliff Cardinal has a bag over his head as he opens Huff, but he can’t manage to fall unconscious, which typically happens after three minutes. The haunting voice of his younger brother stops him. It echoes around the stage in a shocking beginning to this damaged, deflating production.
Cardinal’s script isn’t enough to emphasise the intensity of this introductory life or death situation. But his deadpan stare is another story. When Huff goes back in time to his childhood, Cardinal physically transforms, each mannerism indicating a member of the entire Indigenous Canadian family – violent father, dejected stepmother and three emotionally affected children.
Karin Randoja’s direction gives enough space to let Huff’s story develop, with Cardinal adding light and shade to the characters. There is some absurdity to the tale – smells, games consoles and skunks take on bouffon mannerisms. But everything is sensitively presented. Huff is a picture of a broken reality – acts of sexual, emotional and physical abuse are part of this family’s DNA. Each is dealt with in a considerate manner.
It’s all a little too much for one production. Multiple conclusions lack the impact that Cardinal establishes in the opening, and the middle portion comes close to losing audience attention. But Huff holds together through Cardinal’s conviction. And as he ends with the bag back over his head, the image is no longer shocking. It’s sadly inevitable.