Written by Drew Hayden Taylor. Directed by Columpa C. Bobb. At the Firehall Arts Centre on November 15. Continues until December 2
In everything that’s been said and written about Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, the word most often employed is timely.
With its 1996 Toronto premiere and first Firehall production in 1997, the second in Drew Hayden Taylor’s trilogy of plays about identity—centred on an Ojibwa First Nation woman seized by the government as a child and adopted out to a wealthy white family—helped to bring to light the now notorious “’Sixties Scoop”.
Twenty years on and, sadly, "timely" is still an apt descriptor. Despite commissions, inquiries, debates, and protest movements, blessed little has improved for Canada’s First Nations.
In Firehall’s current production, the other, more felicitous meaning of timely also comes to bear in that director Columpa C. Bobb originally workshopped the role of Barb, thereby bridging two decades and two casts. The results, while uneven at times, are worth the price of admission.
The storyline follows Janice Wirth/Grace Wabung (Chelsea Rose Tucker), a high-powered and high-strung entertainment lawyer who has recently discovered (in the previous instalment of the trilogy, Someday) that the Children’s Aid Society of Ontario illegally removed her from her birth family.
Janice arrives back from two months’ vacation to find her estranged sister Barb (Ashley Chartrand), Barb’s strange boyfriend, Rodney (Braiden Houle), and complete stranger Tonto (Chris Cound) in her immaculate Toronto condo. Barb explains that their mother, Anne, died four days ago and hopes to convince Janice to return to the Otter Lake Reserve to pay her last respects.
It’s a bit of a rough start for the cast, who seemed underrehearsed in the first act. Janice’s self-defence attack on Tonto was, on review night, almost comically misdelivered and the awkwardness on-stage came less from the situation in which the characters found themselves and more from the uncertainty of the actors. Overcoming some questionably harsh lighting cues, the quartet regained their footing when they broke off into pairs, especially Janice and Tonto, whose simmering flirtation was enhanced by the on-stage chemistry between Tucker and Cound.
Act 2, when Janice returns to her birth family’s home in Otter Lake, is much stronger, thanks mostly to bravura performances by Tucker and Chartrand. Barb suggests the sisters get drunk in order to get to know each other better, citing their late mom’s saying: “Only drunks and children tell the truth.” Flailing in their cups, Janice and Barb get progressively more confrontational but eventually come to a hard-won, albeit tentative, understanding that reads as unforced, much to the actors’ credit.
Ultimately, the strong second act propels the production beyond its shaky early scenes. Any frustration as the lights fade to black stems from the fact that Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth stops where the last play in the trilogy, 400 Kilometers, begins. While the play is self-contained, it’s still a tough break for a post-Netflix audience used to binge-watching multiple episodes in a row.
Perhaps if the seats fill up for this production (and, really, they should), we’ll be treated to the next layer of the story in a timely manner.