Tarragon Theatre & Prairie Theatre Exchange/New Magic Valley Fun Town, written by Daniel MacIvor, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Mainspace, Feb 20 to Mar. 31. Tickets available at 416-531-1827 or tarragontheatre.com
Daniel MacIvor is a Canadian playwright with an international reputation, whose works have been translated into French, Portuguese, Spanish, Czech, German and Japanese. He is a Governor General’s Awards-winner for Drama, and the recipient of the Siminovitch Prize, which is akin to Canada’s genius award. When MacIvor pens a new play, attention must be paid.
There is, however, a difficulty in writing a review of New Magic Valley Fun Town because there are surprises in the script. Therefore, because I don’t want to be a spoiler, my apologies for talking around, rather than talking at.
We see the set before we meet the characters. Designer Brian Perchaluk has created the ugliest trailer kitchenette and living room on Cape Breton Island, made all the more awful by the glaring light Kim Purtell has poured onto the stage. In other words, the setting is perfect. The playwright himself portrays sixtysomething Dougie who arrives with loads of No Frills snacks and lots of beer. His entrance, and the first few minutes of the play, are absolutely hilarious. Dougie is clearly an obsessive-compulsive fuss-budget, and his total disarray and ineptitude make for broad humour indeed.
In short order, his separated wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis) comes to the door with paper towels, followed by their daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald). We gather that Cheryl is a devout Catholic, who although is living apart from Dougie in the matrimonial home, still attempts to manage his life. The troubled Sandy, garbed in pyjamas and slippers, lives with her mother. She is a post-graduate student who seems to be stalled in her thesis, and is home from university grappling with depression. This then is Dougie’s very dysfunctional, but laugh-out-loud family.
Dougie is in a tizzy because he is awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a boyhood friend whom he hasn’t seen in twenty-five years, and who will be his houseguest. Allen is an English literature professor in Toronto. Along with Dougie and Allen, Cheryl and Sandy will be attending the grand reunion later in the day. And so the scene is set for the stroll down memory lane that will, of course, contain the bitter with the sweet. It is not as if MacIvor is writing anything new. His subject matter has been addressed many times before, but he is a gifted writer, and in his hands, even the tried and true can be made fresh. Incidentally, the New Magic Valley Fun Town of the title is a kiddie theme park where Dougie, Allen and Cheryl played as children. The name itself is irony writ large.
MacIvor is known for his wry wit and punchy subjects, and New Magic Valley Fun Town is vintage. There are laughs galore, but there are also emotional wallops. His dialogue is spare and honest without one extraneous word. MacIvor is a master at character revelation, and this play, in particular, abounds with sharply portrayed real people. By the end, we feel that we’ve known Dougie, Cheryl, Sandy and Allen for years. As a playwright, MacIvor is always able to juggle many themes in the air at one time without creating an overload, and New Magic Valley Fun Town touches on a wide range of topics, both ones that are intimately domestic, and those ripped from today’s headlines.
The playwright is also a gifted actor, and Dougie’s seeming superficiality is slowly peeled away to reveal the troubled and complicated man beneath. The great Gillis nails Cheryl’s simple and direct nature perfectly. She is a good soul who is caught up in a complex world that is beyond her understanding. MacDonald manages to capture Sandy’s narcissism and self-indulgence while not losing sight of her intelligence, which is no mean feat. I confess to having trouble with Moodie’s acting in the past, particularly when he speaks in a mannered fashion and garbles his words on fast retorts. Nonetheless, he does redeem himself by always understanding mood. MacIvor says in his program notes that he wrote these parts with these actors in mind, and he is not wrong in his casting choices.
Richard Rose is a consummate director, always going for the richest character portrayal and the clearest stage picture, and this production does not disappoint. Brenda McLean’s costumes are character-perfect, especially for the women.
New Magic Valley Fun Town is a run-don’t-walk production. It is an absorbing and compelling slice of life, and while MacIvor doesn’t say anything new, what he does say is important.