(Jamie Williams and Melanie Janzen, Here On The Flight Path, 2016)
Stage-door.com Review by Christopher Hoile
Here On The Flight Path by Norm Foster
Directed by Blair Williams
July 17, 2016 (St Catharines, ON)
John: “I had no intention of winding up in an apartment. No, I wanted to live on the ocean. I wanted to spend my days just staring out at the power of the sea.”
The new Norm Foster Festival, the first festival ever to showcase a Canadian playwright’s work, continues from strength to strength. The Festival’s first offering was Foster’s recent play On a First Name Basis from 2013 starring the playwright himself. For the second of its three shows, the Festival has chosen one of Foster’s most popular plays of plays of the 1990s – Here on the Flight Path from 1997. It’s a strong production in acting, design and direction, sure to please Foster’s legions of fans and to make converts of newcomers.
The play is set in two adjoining balconies on the fourth and top floor of an apartment building under the flight path of an airport in an unnamed major city, most likely Toronto. As David Wootten’s very realistic design makes clear, the balcony on stage right is much used, with a barbecue set, chair, tables and boxes of empty beer cans, while the balcony stage left is deserted. The renter of the stage right apartment is John Cummings (Jamie Williams), who narrates and acts out excerpts of his encounters with the three different women who move into and out of the apartment next door over the period of about three and a half years.
Cummings is a writer who has a regular column in the local paper with the title “Cummings and Goings” that Cummings finds particularly clever. Cummings, who has been divorced for a year, has his interest and perhaps also his desire piqued by his three successive neighbours.
The first is Fay (Melanie Janzen), a high-end call girl, who is more mentally astute, fitter and more determined than Cummings could ever hope to be. The problem is that whenever her neighbours discover her profession they have her kicked out of her residence. The second is Angel (also Janzen), a young woman from Calgary whose father is financing her dream of breaking into musicals. Any romantic notions Cummings might have towards the luckless Angel are halted by her view that he at age 46 is old enough to be her father. The third is Gwen (Janzen again), a driving instructor from Vancouver who has left her husband.
(Jamie Williams and Melanie Janzen, Here On The Flight Path, 2016)
The structure of the play seems simple. In each 30-minute act we see Cummings interact with one of the women. The sameness in his approach is comic in itself as are his attempts to adjust his approach to suit the personality of each woman. The contrast of the three women is also comic – the worldly-wise Fay versus the naive Angel versus the emotional confused Gwen. Since Cummings is our narrator, the play superficially looks like male-oriented disquisition of the vagaries of the female.
But the play is not as simple as that, and fortunately director Blair Williams, well-known for his successes at the Shaw Festival, like The Millionairess in 2012 or The President in 2008 and 2011, is fully aware of it. As we discover in his light-hearted conversations with his three neighbours, Cummings is trying to put a brave face on a very unhappy situation. He lives in his less-than-idea apartment in its noisy location because after his divorce from his wife, she got custody of their house and their two children. Cummings shows pictures of these children he can no longer visit to each of the three women.
Besides that, Cummings tells each woman that he is working on a novel that is worked out in his head and that when he gets around to it “will practically write itself”. The first time we hear this we think Cummings is trying to impress Fay. But the second and third times we hear it we realize that this is just part of a narrative that Cummings has constructed about himself. When he tells the audience about it we have to wonder what to make of a narrator, humorous as he is, who lies to himself.
Cummings’s presentation of himself to the women, where he tries not always successfully to cover up his misogynist views, gradually reveals why he is in the situation he is in. Each of the three women who stays for a short time in next door apartment, comes to a realization, gets her life together and moves on, while Cummings stays put is the same place without any revelation, hoping to be saved by the next female tenant rather than by looking into himself.
(Melanie Janzen and Jamie Williams, Here On The Flight Path, 2016)
Foster’s fine ear for the natural way that people speak is a joy to hear. His ability to depict the kinds of unforced comedies that arise in any social interactions is a gift. Yet, as in In a First Name Basis, in Here on the Flight Path there is a melancholy tone that underlies all the humour. The reasons Cummings and all three women live in the same apartment building are not inherently funny – whether it is because of divorce, community rejection or trying unsuccessfully to do what one loves. Cummings has basically lost everything and tries to make himself and the women think that he is fine. But is column’s title” Cummings and Goings” pretty much summarizes what we see as various women come into his life and then leave it to move on to success. Cummings may live on a flight path, but it is his life that never takes off.
Under Blair Williams’s direction both actors play their roles with admirable subtlety. Jamie Williams wins us over with his congeniality and wry humour. Yet over the three and a half years of the story, the unchanging Cummings of Jamie Williams begins to evoke as much pathos as humour. Jamie Williams is ideal in the role and indirectly suggests as each woman departs how a sense of hollowness is filling his life. We come to see that his he uses humour as a way of fending off a feeling of loss that might be too devastating for him to admit.
Foster states that the three women can be played by three actors or by one. Using one as here allows the actor a tour de force performance. Helped by David Wootten’s radically different outfits and wigs, Melanie Janzen gives each of the three woman a completely distinct vocal range and set of gestures. Her Fay and Gwen are so unlike it is hard to believe they are played by the same actor. One of Cummings’s many mistakes regarding women is to think of them as weak, but Janzen demonstrates quite clearly that all three are in very different ways ultimately stronger than Cummings is. Even the overconfident but unsuccessful Angel comes to realize that the talent that people praised her for back home might not be enough to cut it in musical theatre in Toronto. And then she goes on to reinvent herself. It’s hard to imagine the three roles better performed.
While Blair Williams has updated the action to the present with much use of smartphones for photos and music besides communication, the allusions to popular culture clearly set the action in the 1990s. Eventually, Foster will have to update his references or a director will have to accept 1997 as a period setting.
What makes Foster’s comedies so endearing is that he does not condemn or ridicule his characters for making mistakes. Making mistakes is what human beings are good at. Changing their ways is much harder. Foster’s comedy, though very funny, ultimately forgives his characters for their mistakes and even for their lack of insight. It’s a warm, humane view of the world that one hopes inspires a similar feeling in those who see his plays. Don’t miss this fine production.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.