By Susinn McFarlen. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. A Presentation House production. At Presentation House Theatre on Thursday, September 18. Continues until September 28
In Act 1, the water is bubbling away, but it’s hard to figure out what’s cooking. Then, in Act 2, playwright Susinn McFarlen throws in some plot and starts making a meal—which turns out to be pretty yummy.
To put it another way, the first half is energetic and sometimes funny, but it’s unfocused. Fanny comes back to Vancouver from Toronto for the first time in 15 years. She’s in hot pursuit of Danno, her 17-year-old son, who’s flown the coop to come stay with Fanny’s sister, Denny. As it happens, it’s also the 70th birthday of their mother, Dolly, who’s trailing Chuck, a boyfriend 20 years her junior, in her wake.
It’s hard to know where to look. Fanny has been sober for 15 years, but Dolly and Chuck are heavy drinkers, as is Mike, Fanny and Denny’s brother. So all of that’s going on. And then there’s the thing with Denny and her 22-year-old, diapered Jack Russell who, according to Denny, has been diagnosed with Dogzheimer’s. (Denny complains about how little support there is for caregivers.)
Where’s the middle? Well, Fanny looks like the protagonist and she has a goal, which is to take Danno home, but that goal yields so little in terms of plot that, essentially, nothing happens. Besides, Denny and her dog are so absurd that they steal focus. So the first half is just a slurry of family dysfunction and eccentricity—as when a plastered Dolly starts talking, in front of her grandson, about blowing her boyfriend.
Then plot arrives in Act 2 and saves the day. I won’t give anything more away, but death comes knocking. A funeral must be held, so there’s coherent action. And that action releases the full force of the play’s strength, which is its juxtaposition of the painful and the absurd.
Director Amiel Gladstone has assembled a marvellous cast that gets a whole lot out of this material. Colleen Wheeler is perfect as Denny: her tearful concern for her pet is absolutely authentic—and just exaggerated enough to make it hilarious. Playing Fanny, Jillian Fargey is also splendid: deeply emotionally present, and playing with the craziness at the same time. I was also impressed by Mike Gill (Danno), who delivers a subtle, professional performance, even though he hasn’t graduated from Studio 58 yet.
Pam Johnson’s airy set—she indicates Denny’s house by showing us the frame only, rendered in white two-by-fours—is a thing of beauty.
Favourite line: under pressure Denny agrees to euthanize her dog, then adds, “But here’s the deal: we put Mom down at the same time.”