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SCRUTINY | Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance Is A Monumental Theatrical Experience

By Paula Citron on April 3, 2024

A scene from Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
A scene from Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Canadian Stage/The Inheritance, Parts 1 and 2, written by Matthew Lopez, directed by Brendan Healy, Bluma Appel Theatre, closes Apr. 14. Tickets here

The Inheritance (2018) — over six hours of running time, spread over two performances — is a monumental theatrical experience for the ages.

Is it worth the long sit? You bet it is.

American playwright Matthew Lopez has taken an intriguing premise as the basis for his magnum opus — nothing less than E.M. Forster’s classic 1910 novel, Howard’s End.

While Forster’s interest was on English societal structure and the relationships between the classes during the Edwardian era, Lopez sets his play amid the post-AIDS generation of gay men in contemporary New York.

The three different classes in Howard’s end are represented by the capitalist, wealthy, conservative Wilcox family, the poverty stricken Basts, and between them, the idealistic, cultured Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Helen and brother Tibby). The Schlegel sisters — the stalwart Margaret and the struggling Helen — are, arguably, the novel’s major protagonists, along with Henry Wilcox and Leo Bast.

A scene from Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
A scene from Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Lopez’s substitutes for the Schlegels are a gay couple of seven year’s duration. Eric Glass (Qasim Khan) works for a social justice group, while his lover, Toby Darling (Antoine Yared) is a struggling playwright. The ultrarich character is Henry Wilcox (Jim Mezon), named after Forster’s Henry Wilcox. Poverty is found in Leo (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), a young male prostitute who practically lives on the street.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Jackman-Torkoff is also Adam, a young actor from a rich background, who is a figure of lust for both Eric and Toby. Another dual role and key figure is Morgan/Walter (Daniel MacIvor, equipped with an English accent for the former). Morgan, in reality, is E.M. Forster himself, while Walter is Henry’s lover.

Margaret (Louise Pitre), does not appear until the last act of Part Two, and is the mother of a son who died of AIDs, among other things. The 13-member cast also includes Eric’s and Toby’s friends, Wilcox’s two sons, and younger versions of Henry and Walter.

How Lopez weaves all these very complex characters together, especially their impact on each other, is one of the play’s marvels. The other captivating feature of The Inheritance is its structure.

Ten of the 13 cast members, excluding Mezon, MacIvor and Pitre, are also designated as Young Men, and each has a number. They take turns narrating the action throughout, but it is much more than telling a story.

If a character is telling a lie, they catch him on it. If a character isn’t saying what he is really feeling, they demand a reality check. In short, they are a Greek chorus designed to expose the truth as the play proceeds through a plethora of monologues and scenes. Morgan is along to steer the narrative on the right path.

As well as following the main characters’ story lines, there are also delightful tangents like a nostalgic discussion about missing the old gay community, now that they are more accepted as mainstream, or a spirited paean on the role of social justice.

Then there’s the hilarious reaction of the friends when Donald Trump gets elected. They never thought that Hilary Clinton would lose.

We also get a strong sense of New York life with references to art galleries, theatres, concerts, restaurants and the like, that are tossed naturally into the conversation.

As for arguments? Lopez is a master of bitchy, cutting insults.

The play is filled with humour, including many laugh out loud lines, but, of course, beneath the witty and sophisticated dialogue, is a poignancy as characters rise and fall. The ending of Part 1 is as devastating as it is unforgettable.

A scene from Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
A scene from Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

A true star of the show is director Brendan Healy, because you are always aware of just how cleverly he is moving his forces through Michael Gianfrancesco’s efficient set, lit with precision by Kimberly Purtell. Richard Feren’s evocative sound design never intrudes, but is always there. Costume designer Ming Wong has found lots of variants in clothing the men according to character.

Another Healy positive is the pacing that never flags — an important element in a six-hour show. The time just gallops along, as we watch very well-developed characters play out their lives — one more Healy plus.

There is a lot of fine acting going on but tops for me are Yared’s Toby and Jackman-Torkoff’s Adam/Leo. They blaze through their roles. Mezon, who never puts a foot wrong, plays opinionated, confident Henry Wilcox with sublime ruler-of-the-world entitlement, while MacIvor shows suitable gravitas with Morgan/Walter. Khan’s Eric, who is the lynchpin, anchors the play with his strength of character.

Then there is the all-important house. The idealized country estate, Howard’s End, that is so pivotal in Forster’s novel, in Lopez’s play, is an isolated farm house in the country that, too, plays its very important role in the machinations of the plot.

Is Part 1 stronger than Part 2? Yes. Could the play be condensed down to one evening? Certainly. Is Pitre’s role really necessary? No. Is the ending a bit flat? Probably.

That being said, The Inheritance is a towering achievement, and you leave the theatre knowing these characters as if they were part of your own life.

And what about the title? These gay men of today inherited their easier lifestyle because of those who fought the good fight. The 1969 Stonewall Uprising following a police raid on that iconic gay bar gets several mentions, as do the generation of gay men who were wiped out by the AIDS epidemic.

Do the gay men of today recognize the pioneers of the past? That is what The Inheritance is trying to uncover.

I’d like to end on a personal reflection.

I have an old address book that is no longer useful in the digital age, but I can’t throw it out because it has the phone numbers of so many men who died of AIDS. To discard it would be to erase their memory.

That’s what I believe is at the heart of Lopez’s The Inheritance. It is an homage to past lives.

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Paula Citron
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