While working with her at Alumnae Theatre, I remember Barbara Larose talking about family stories and memories, passed along via word-of-mouth by aunts and her mother, and how it would make a great play.
So it was wonderful to see that vision come to life when Larose collaborated with actor/composer husband Richard Jones to create the musical Life in the Raw, directed for its Toronto Fringe premiere at the George Ignatieff Theatre by Larose and assistant director/ASM Ellen Green.
Larose and Jones have a lovely cast for this musical family drama:. Jones plays William, the patriarch of this family, struggling through the Depression in 1930s Montreal. Denise Norman plays his wife Kathleen, and Rielle Braid (Faith), Brianne Tucker (Hope) and Kaitlin Lane (Nellie) are their daughters. Scott Pietrangelo does double duty as accompanist and the voice of Mr. MacKenzie, the bill collector.
Set simply but effectively in the family kitchen, Kathleen struggles with the family’s finances, taking on work as a housekeeper and laundress to make ends meet, keeping the house together as a virtual single mother – with a husband who is largely absent and not bringing in much money. Faith is the serious, responsible oldest sister, a second parent of sorts and doing charitable work with the Salvation Army. Hope is head-strong, quick-tempered and ballsy, longing to be a famous actress, while Nellie is the quiet, shy day-dreamer who longs for a job at the Eaton’s catalogue.
It is through music – arias in between domestic scenes – that each expresses his or her hopes and dreams, history and fears. The girls hope for the future and a better life away from home, while their parents express their struggles – a mother going it alone and missing her husband’s touch, and a father who is emotionally distant, shamed and weak, hardly at home and having an affair. My favourite musical moments were the sisters’ arias, each expressing her longings for the future, to leave home and live a life of her own choosing. And their three-part harmonies are hauntingly lovely.
The scenes of family life in the kitchen play out across the stage and throughout the years, turning from more realistic staging to theatrically abstract as the family – especially the girls – cope with Kathleen’s fatal cancer, weaving in and out of the harsh centre stage spotlight as the chaos and dread of what’s to come take over their lives. Remarkably, it is the mousey Nellie who shows the most strength during this time. It is she who becomes the primary caregiver for her mother – and later on, her father – and she manages to find compassion for William even in the face of her sisters’ anger at him. William is not a bad man, just a weak one.
Charming and poignantly told with family moments and music, Life in the Raw is just that – the life of a family, for better or worse – warts and all.
Life in the Raw continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 14. For more info, you can visit the production’s site at: www.thickandthinproductions.com as well as the Toronto Fringe site: www.fringetoronto.com