In semi-darkness, the stage is set with two platforms on either side – the floor panels later being flipped up to create walls. Up centre is a wooden tower from which chairs and various props pieces hang. And a digital clock that reads 2:59. The tower is neat. Clever and interesting – whimsical, even. And also malevolent and looming. The Ocean Ranger oil rig. As the house lights go down and the actors emerge from the wings, we hear the sounds of deep, steady breathing. A ventilator. Yoga exercise. Darth Vader. Breath echoing, as if coming from inside a chamber.
This is the audience’s first glimpse of Lisa Moore’s play February – adapted from her novel and directed for its world premiere on the Alumnae Theatre main stage by Michelle Alexander.
Helen is having a phone conversation with her adult son John, a corporate image consultant who travels the world. Life is good and things are great. And he may have gotten a Canadian woman pregnant in Iceland. He seems callous and detached, a Bluetooth-sporting yuppie douche, and Helen demands to know what he told the woman and what he means to do about the situation. The scene shifts to a phone call from years earlier – 1982, when Helen receives word that her husband Cal perished when a snow storm hit and sunk the Ocean Ranger. The play continues its time shift from past to present and we see Helen and Cal’s courtship and marriage, and John’s early entry into being the man of the house at the age of 10. An imaginative lad and a Star Wars fan, as handy as he is with a light sabre, John is not ready – and comes to fear both commitment and submersion in water.
Told with real, often raw, emotion, February is not all doom and gloom. Resilient and good-humoured, Helen struggles with her grief, a young widow suddenly thrust into single motherhood, coping with Cal’s absence by continuing their relationship, conversing with his ghost. In middle age, she finds the courage to start making changes and she finds herself ready to bring light into her home via renovation – then, unsure but game, investigating online dating and considering the friendly contractor who is transforming her home. Meanwhile, John takes a job at a local oil company and is forced to confront his fears. It is a touching story – and, as in life, hard edges are softened with humour, with insight gained creating light in the darkness.
Director Alexander (who appeared in an Alumnae production of Private Lives several years ago), with assistant director Darwin Lyons, has done a fine job of staging Helen and John’s parallel stories. Working with producer Tabitha Keast (who is also producing a baby, its opening night just a few weeks away), Alexander has assembled an excellent design team to evoke time, place and atmosphere – with set and props by Karen McMichael, lighting by Gabriel Cropley, sound by Megan Benjafield and costumes by Peter DeFreitas.
The outstanding cast features Kathleen Jackson Allamby, Trevor Cartlidge, Justin Skye Conley, John Fray, Victoria Fuller, Lavetta Griffin and Steve Switzman. Griffin (herself a Newfoundlander, who appeared in Our Eliza at New Ideas Festival 2012) is marvelous as Helen. From a spirited young woman in love to an overwhelmed widow in mourning, dealing with the stress of raising four young kids alone, to a middle-aged woman emerging from the darkness of past and ready for a brighter future – a lovely performance. Conley does a nice job of playing John’s many layers, shifting from that scared little boy trying to be brave with his light sabre and blanket cape to a young man pretty much doing the same, minus the sabre and cape. Fray is sexy and fun as living Cal – and a supportive confidant to Helen as his ghost. Nice work from supporting cast members: Cartlidge, who juggles multiple roles, including Cal’s father Dave, and Allamby as Helen’s sister Louise, both offering good-humoured practical and emotional support to Helen in the aftermath of Cal’s death; Fuller (also from Newfoundland) playing dual roles of John’s pregnant, anxious lover Jane, as well as a good-natured, wry-witted waitress at a pub, giving Helen her ear in a scene that is both touching and funny; and Switzman is lovable, sweet and warm as Helen’s contractor Barry. The Newfoundland flavour of the characterizations is strong, assisted by dialect coach John Fleming, who also provided the voiceover work for the production.
I haven’t read the novel, but I did purchase a copy during the fabulous reception (organized by Joanne Nelson and Sandra Schneider) after the show last night. And I have it on good authority that it’s been well-adapted from page to stage by author and first-time playwright Lisa Moore, who was very pleased with the results – as was the assembled audience.
February runs until Saturday, October 6 – with a Q&A talkback with Moore, Alexander et al after the matinée tomorrow (Sun, Sept 23). For info and reservations, visit the Alumnae website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213feb.html