By John Mighton. Directed by Bill Devine. A Sea Theatre production. At Presentation House Theatre until May 28
The Little Years is a little jewel of a play: small but multifaceted, and beautifully crafted.
John Mighton's script gives us glimpses into different stages in the life of Kate, a woman whose early promise as a mathematician is cut short. At age 13, she's a gifted student whose natural abilities are overlooked by 1950s society, which has difficulty conceiving of women as scientists. Instead, she's sent to vocational school while her older brother, William, grows up to become one of the most widely praised poets of his generation.
We next see Kate as a bitter young adult, having lost her latest in a series of secretarial jobs. Her mother despairs of her finding happiness, either at work or in love. Indeed, when William's wife, Grace, tries to introduce her to Roger, a painter Kate admires, Kate alienates him by lashing out and ridiculing his aspirations.
In the second act, Kate is 60, and still at war with her aged mother (who, it's painfully obvious, continues to prefer the now-deceased William). Later, Kate meets her niece, Tanya, an award-winning high-school graduate who's about to begin university studies in science. Kate has unknowingly been a huge influence on Tanya, whose childhood discovery of Kate's old diaries engendered her own passion for scientific exploration.
It's at this point that Mighton's script starts to feel a bit preachy. The economy of the text as it ranges over so many years allows for some clever structural effects-Roger's line, "They call me the Barry Manilow of the painting world," is boastful in 1975 and sheepish when he repeats it 20 years later-but it also limits our ability to know the characters deeply. At times they seem more like thinly drawn illustrations of an idea than fully fleshed-out people.
But that's a small complaint, given that Bill Devine's attentive direction fully realizes the script's considerable intellectual and sensual pleasures. The principle of symmetry underlies all the visual elements of the production, from Gary and Lynda Chu's set-a harmonious mix of natural and geometric shapes, with a central platform flanked by orderly gardens-to the blocking of the transitions between scenes. These moments subtly underscore the play's ideas about the complexity of time. Dorothy Dittrich's lush music is elegantly emotive, and Michael Schaldemose's lighting is sensuous and evocative.
The acting is also generally excellent. Cat Main's unrestrained naturalness as the young Kate beautifully contrasts the barely contained rage that infuses Ruth McIntosh's embodiment of her adult incarnation. Lucinda Nielsen makes Grace's unremitting generosity and kindness utterly convincing. Only Lee Van Paassen, who play's Kate's mother, comes across as overly artificial.
The Little Years compresses most of a lifetime into just over an hour, but it's full of ideas that resonate for much, much longer.