By Briana Brown. Directed by Katrina Dunn. A Touchstone Theatre production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, June 6. Continues until June 14
Because it feels like there’s no middle, it’s hard to squeeze much satisfaction out of first-time playwright Briana Brown’s The Concessions.
At first, the play appears to be a murder mystery. It’s a dark and stormy night in a lakeside community in Ontario’s Huron County, when we find out that somebody has bound and shot a 17-year-old girl. But the script doesn’t follow the investigation and it presents no real suspects.
So what are we doing here? It seems we’re exploring the existential crises that the crime has provoked in a handful of locals. Fay gave Bridget, the victim, a tarot-card reading just before she was killed. Having failed to anticipate the murder, Fay begins to suspect that her supposed psychic abilities are fake—and that maybe she shouldn’t get drunk and stoned quite so often. Fay’s partner, John, an underachieving scientist, starts to think about moving on. Bridget’s mother, Julie, expresses her anger at the injustice of her daughter’s death by railing at the stupidity of the people around her. And a radio reporter named Sarah mucks in, rallying the community against one unlikely killer after another so shamelessly that you expect angry villagers to show up with pitchforks and torches.
Unfortunately, nothing very interesting—or credible—happens. In her mix of sensitivity and boozy dysfunction, Fay is by far the most engaging character, but even Fay has very little to do, other than beg her tarot deck to reveal the truth.
Passive characters are often boring and the only figure here who actively pursues a concrete, narrative-advancing agenda is Sarah, the reporter. But Sarah is an artificial invention. Her obsession with Fay’s psychic ability is so overstated that it becomes comic, and her rabble-rousing radio broadcasts are so libelous they’d never make it to the airwaves.
The script also assumes that its audience is going to believe in psychic phenomena. Because the play is naturalistic, that’s a big ask.
Writer Brown has some solid instincts. The play’s candlelit opening and closing moments, in which Fay addresses the audience as she gives a reading, are theatrically effective. Brown creates an impressive structural thread by deconstructing the psychic advice that Fay gave Bridget. And she peppers the play with humour. When Fay’s dad, a cop, coaches her on how to make her statement to the police, Fay replies, “Shouldn’t we—I don’t know—not be lying?”
Also on the upside, director Katrina Dunn has cast terrific actors. Playing Fay, Emma Slipp delivers an excellent, multitextured, emotive performance. And, as Sarah, Jillian Fargey is fiercely dedicated to the character’s illogic.
Still, there’s a central problem here. The Concessions is being presented as part of Touchstone Theatre’s Flying Start program, an initiative that’s designed to give emerging playwrights their first professional production. But director Dunn and dramaturge Kathleen Flaherty have failed Brown in their most crucial function: they haven’t enabled the playwright to find the structure that would make the thematic ambition of The Concessions narratively satisfying.