Tarragon Theatre/Withrow Park, written by Morris Panych, directed by Jackie Maxwell, Tarragon Mainspace, until Dec. 10. Tickets here.
On paper, the world premiere of Morris Panych’s Withrow Park looked like the hit of the season.
A new play by Panych, a two-time Governor-General Award-winner. The revered former Shaw Festival artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, to shepherd the production to the stage. Three of the finest senior citizens (in the best sense) to ever grace the stage —Nancy Palk, Corrine Koslo and Benedict Campbell — along with Johnathan Sousa, an acclaimed actor of the current generation.
Alas, it was not to be. So the question remains — what went wrong?
The answer is, the play doesn’t know what it wants to be. Essentially, Withrow Park is a treatise on death and dying, but what else is Panych trying to do? Dark comedy? Mystery? Existential philosophic? Magic realism? Theatre of the Absurd? Supernatural? Horror? Now ordinarily, a play could be all these things if the genres mesh together, but Panych has not been able to do that. There are abrupt ruptures that stop an ease of flow, and move from one kind of play jerkily into another.
The aging Janet (Palk) and Arthur (Campbell) live in Arthur’s mother’s house bordering Withrow Park (the heart of Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood). The two are going through a divorce because Arthur left Janet for a gay lover. When that man in turn left Arthur for a dog walker in Palm Springs, the ex has returned to the house, where he guzzles gin all day. Oh, and by the way, Janet is slowly losing her sight.
Marion (Koslo), Janet’s unmarried sister, lives in the house as well. She spends her life concocting conspiracy theories, clutching a book to her bosom which she never reads. Marion has binoculars at the ready to spy on the park. She also threatens to kill herself on her birthday, and has been doing so for years.
And then there’s the mysterious Simon (Sousa), who one day knocks on the door. He says he’s new to the neighbourhood and wants to introduce himself, and he is ultimately invited to dinner. Simon also bears a resemblance to a homeless man who frequents the park, which sets Marion off conjuring up a host of bizarre possibilities as to just who and what Simon might be.
On one side, there’s the Janet/Arthur/Marion plot, and as the play progresses, we find out more and more about their convoluted relationships and backgrounds. My question is, why go so deeply into their lives if there is not going to be some sort of outcome to that storyline? In other words, where are the character arcs? The family trio resides unfinished as Panych brings in the mysterious Simon, which introduces another plotline, which also remains unsatisfyingly left open at the end.
As a theatre goer, I have never been one that needs spoon-feeding, and I don’t mind plays that don’t have clear resolutions. I’d like to think I’m too sophisticated for that. What I don’t appreciate, however, is when a play is over, and I’m asking myself, just what was that all about?
Withrow Park is not all dross, however. Far from it. This is Panych, after all, and his usual one line zingers are there to amuse, although the play could use more of them. One glorious bit of dialogue occurs at the dinner party where Marion throws out hilarious questions to Simon that she thinks are subtle, but are anything but, to try to uncover what he is about.
There are also sparkling performances, particularly from Palk and Koslo, but, alas, the usually adept Campbell just doesn’t work. He adopts a tone of constant whine and never changes his delivery. As a result, he tends to deaden the scene, something that Maxwell should have caught. Sousa, sadly, is written on one note, and does what he can to bring life to his character.
Another plus is one of the most beautiful sets to ever grace a theatre stage. Designer Ken MacDonald has given us a gorgeously appointed room with a hint of the park’s foliage, as seen through the arresting line of windows, all beautifully lit by Kimberly Purtell. Jacob Lin’s sound design moves from jaunty to eerie in an attempt to follow the vicissitudes of the script, while designer Joyce Padua has clothed the three older characters in the height of middle class smartness. This is Riverdale, after all. Simon is suitably rumpled.
Was I bored? No. Did I enjoy aspects of the play? Definitely. Was it a satisfying evening of theatre? I think this review of Withrow Park speaks to that answer.
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