(Melanie Janzen and Catherine McGregor, Lunenburg, 2017)
Stage-door.com Review by Christopher Hoile
Lunenburg by Norm Foster
Directed by Patricia Vanstone
August 16, 2017 (St Catharines, ON)
Iris: “Who’s going to haul me out of the bathtub?”
The Norm Foster Theatre Festival finishes its second season with a second world premiere by its famously prolific eponymous playwright. Of the six comedies the Festival has presented, Lunenburg, though it does contains lots of laughs, is probably the least typically comedic. It’s a play less about one-liners and farcical situations than a philosophical comedy about healing and coming to understand oneself better. With an ideal cast Lunenburg is not the kind of of comedy that shocks but rather one that envelops you in its warmth.
Foster is often compared to his fellow prolific writers of comedy, Neil Simon in the the US and Alan Ayckbourn in the UK. What sets Foster’s comedies apart from these two is his persistent undercurrent of melancholy and his characters who typically cope with loss, failure or isolation. In Lunenburg these differences come to the fore in a story about a woman from Maine, Iris Oulette, who has recently been widowed by her husband Robert’s death in a plane crash. She has travelled to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, with her best friend Natalie because she has discovered she has inherited her husband’s house there, one she knew nothing about.
Iris knew that Robert’s job meant that he had to spend half of every month in Lunenburg and half in Maine, but, as she discovers from Charlie, Robert’s next door neighbour in Lunenburg, she knew very little about Robert’s life in Canada. The bombshell Charlie delivers early on in the play (which I regret I must reveal to discuss the action) is that Robert lived in Lunenburg with his wife Jennifer Cleveland, whom he married there five years before he married Iris in the States. Jennifer died with Robert in the same plane crash. Iris, already reeling from grief, is now filled with incomprehension at the four year’s of her husband’s deceit and has to re-evaluate everything she thought she knew of the man who told her she was the “one great love” of his life.
This is hardly the set-up one would expect of a comic play and, indeed, much of the time the play feels much more like a mystery than a comedy as Iris discovers more about Jennifer. Where comedy most clearly enters the action is in the person of Natalie. Natalie, feeling that as Iris’s best friend she must do everything she can to console her, discovers that she really is no good at such a task. When Charlie, who doesn’t waste any time, admits that he was instantly smitten with Natalie, she has to admit she was instantly smitten with him. They resolve to make the most of the short time Natalie will be in Lunenburg while Iris decides what to do with the house. This leads to increasingly pressing incidents where Natalie is torn between her duty to her best friend and her attraction to Charlie – each one ending to Iris’s disadvantage.
(Peter Krantz, Catherine McGregor and Melanie Janzen, Lunenburg, 2017)
What Foster never says but what the action implies is that Natalie’s unintended neglect of Iris may be exactly what Iris needs. Time alone for reflection is really what helps her to heal and as she heals the uncompromising strength of her personality comes forth. Both Charlie and Natalie are divorced and both have twentysomething children from whom they have become estranged. As Iris becomes stronger she becomes more insistent that Charlie and Natalie should take action to heal the rifts that have formed with their own children.
Foster has created three complex roles and they have each been ideally cast. Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor, both longtime veterans of the Shaw Festival, are not appearing at that Festival this year. Instead, they are making their Foster Festival debuts as Charlie and Iris. Iris is not an inherently comic role and McGregor does not even try to force it in that direction. What comedy Iris has come from her acidic remarks to Charlie and Natalie about their carrying on and to Natalie about her obvious failure as a comforter. Instead of comedy, McGregor carefully delineates Iris’s transformation from a wreck crumbling under the double blow fate has dealt her to a woman who gradually gains the insight that she cannot view the dead Jennifer as her enemy. As Iris overcomes her grief and lets go of her hatred, McGregor beautifully shows Iris bloom again, we might say, into the strong woman she used to be. This does mean that the previously hidden bossy side to her nature comes out, but that, it turns out, is not a such a bad thing.
For his part, Krantz plays Charlie with all the attention to detail that he did in his roles at the Shaw. Krantz has Charlie start out as something of a charming rogue who knows what he wants and is ready to play the wooing game to get it. Yet, Krantz also suggests that despite Charlie’s overt desire for Natalie, he is not really superficial at all and has a wealth of real feeling and appreciation that lies hidden beneath his veneer of nonchalance. Krantz, who has brought out the whimsy in so many characters at the Shaw, quite appealingly brings out the whimsy in Charlie that makes us understand why he is so attractive to Natalie.
(Melanie Janzen and Peter Krantz, Lunenburg, 2017)
The prime comic role of Natalie is played by Melanie Janzen, who so well played the three different women last year in Here on the Flight Path. Janzen makes the very effortfulness of Natalie’s attempts to console Iris amusing and her failures at succeeding laugh-out-loud funny. Symbolically, Natalie is torn between trying to cope with a friend’s world of death and deceit and a possible new world of life and love and Janzen makes us understand completely why Natalie should choose the latter.
It is not just Foster’s use of a dark theme that makes Lunenburg such a subtle comedy. Foster also sets up the interaction between Charlie and Natalie so that it parallels the insight Iris keeps gathering into Jennifer’s life and personality. In both cases the more that is known, the more superficial impulses fade and deeper feelings take over. For all three characters the fear exists of “Who’s going to haul me out of the bathtub?”, meaning who will be there when I’m old and helpless. In light of that fear connection with people becomes the most valuable resource a person can have.
Lunenburg keeps up the high artistic standards of design, acting and direction that have characterized all the plays so far at the Foster Festival. Played out on Peter Hartwell’s harbour-view porch that immediately transports us to Nova Scotia, Foster’s play takes place in an idyllic landscape, standing in for the pastoral landscapes of the ancients, where the essential questions of life are discussed and where knowledge can temper the passions to create a more equanimous frame of mind. This may be the deepest form of comedy of all.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.