Taking a break from an incredibly busy month, after putting in some over time at the office last Wednesday I headed across town to catch the evening performance of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Neptune Theatre.
Because this is Halifax, my cross-town jaunt was a twenty-minute walk, which brought me past the open-air concert by The Stanfields at the Parade Grounds.
Part of the Canada Games mega event which has been taking place here in Halifax since Feb. 11th, and which concluded on the 27th, the open-air concert series has pulled in some big names from the East Coast music scene, including:
Great Big Sea
But I had a theatre seat waiting for me over on Argyle Street. Leaving the happy revellers behind, I made my way to the theatre and settled in for a Fargo-like black comedy set in the West of Ireland.
The audience I was a part of laughed uproariously even while gasping in shock at some of the things the characters said to one another. There's a warning in the program about strong language and adult situations, and there are plenty of both.
Photo courtesy of Sean Mulcahy
As with the best sorts of stories, the very particular nature of the setting - a simple cottage in an economically depressed though visually breathtaking part of Ireland - in fact serves to deliver a universal experience.
Laura de Carteret plays 40-year-old Maureen, forced by a process of elimination to care for her aging mother, as her two sisters have flatly refused to do so. As we get to know her mother, it's not hard to imagine why Maureen's sisters fled, though why Maureen stayed to act as primary caregiver is a riddle.
Mary-Colin Chisholm plays Mag, whose fussy demands for the Ensure-like supplement called Complan, for tea, for porridge, for soup, stand in for several decades of leeching all spirit away from her daughter.
Many women in the audience laughed with recognition at the manipulative phrases used by Mag, as no doubt many people in the audience - like myself - have cared for an elderly family member at some point or another.
Even caring for my gram, who was in no way a difficult personality, could get trying at times when the old person wants her toast a certain way, her television program on at a certain time, and is too frail to do it for herself.
But in this relationship between Maureen and Mag, there is none of the laughter and love that made it all worthwhile for my mom and me as we cared for Gram together. These two women may as well be shackled in irons, their cozy cottage a prison where everyday items take on new and diabolical uses.
A highlight of the evening for me was Ryan Bondy's performance as Ray, younger brother of Maureen's potential love interest. As with the seemingly innocuous household items that become clues, that reveal themselves to be accomplices and mirrors to the truth, Ray begins the play as an apparent go-between but ends the play as a bigger figure than even he suspects.
Providing a welcome breath of hope to Maureen, Hugh Thompson's Pato shakes the women from their ritualized half-life when he returns to Leenane from a job in England. His no-frills working man takes us by surprise when he turns out to have more heart and vulnerability than anyone in this multilayered story.
My hat goes off to Sean Mulcahy for his design of the women's cottage. He very kindly provided the photo of the set, shown above.
I was attracted to it from the first moment the painted scrim with its scene of a soggy Irish road raised to reveal the well-worn interior. What I didn't realize was how integral to the story each ordinary kitchen piece would become: the sink, the cooking stove, the cast iron heating stove, the radio, the rocking chair. Not since Robert LePage's staging of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung for the Canadian Opera Company have I seen a set that was such an active ingredient of the whole production.
If you are in the Halifax area, the play runs until March 20th.