By Tad Mosel. Based on the novel A Death in the Family by James Agee. Directed by Kim Collier. Produced by Electric Company Theatre in association with the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday, January 11. Continues until January 14
When beauty arrives, I’m grateful, even if it hurts. Director Kim Collier’s production of All the Way Home is beautiful—sometimes startlingly, painfully so. That’s partly because Collier’s staging, which includes the casting of extraordinary actors, transcends the limitations of the script.
Playwright Tad Mosel based his Pulitzer Prize–winning script on film critic James Agee’s autobiographical 1957 novel A Death in the Family. Set in the early 1900s, it’s about love: the solace it provides and the pain that comes with separation. Mary, a practising Catholic, is married to Jay, a charismatic atheist who used to drink too much. Jay’s vulnerability to liquor still frightens Mary, and when Ralph, Jay’s sloppy, abusive, alcoholic brother, arrives, we see why. Sometimes, Mary and Jay warm one another, and sometimes they drift into the chill of loneliness. They love their young son, Ivan.
It’s not giving anything away to say that the plot includes a death; relentless foreshadowing is one of the script’s problems. Everybody’s always teetering on the brink of oblivion, so when Jay’s father, John Henry, intones, “The hand of death is coming close to this family,” it’s no surprise.
But Collier overcomes the script’s weaknesses, which also include sentimentality and thematic overstatement, by giving it an extraordinarily intimate staging. With the help of designer Marshall McMahen, she seats the audience of 140 on the stage with the actors, behind the closed curtain of the QE Theatre. In McMahen’s set, playgoers sit at Jay and Mary’s table, on cushions in their living room, and on benches that crowd around the invisible walls of their home.
That proximity allows us to feel the full impact of the actors’ honesty, and Collier has assembled some of Vancouver’s finest. It’s not an overstatement to say that this cast includes some of the best performers in the world.
Jonathon Young is radiant as Jay. This guy always looks like he’s lit from within. On-stage, Young’s confidence gives his intelligence and playfulness free rein and allows for an unusual level of emotional clarity. Here, he also sings like a pro, tossing off surprising harmonies in many of the show’s traditional hymns and songs with the ease of a dad playing catch with his kid.
And what can you say about Meg Roe? In her performance as Mary, she continues to amaze. When grief comes in this play, it hits Mary hardest, and Roe is fearless, choking out sorrow that feels so real that it almost seems an invasion of privacy to talk about it.
Playing the alcoholic Ralph, Haig Sutherland makes it clear that Ralph is doing his best, which makes his behaviour even more pathetic. It’s a wonderfully awful piece of work. And taking on the roles of both Mary’s aunt Hannah and the ancient matriarch of Jay’s family, Nicola Lipman is extraordinary. The scene in which she avoids telling Ivan (Jordan Wessels) about the birds and bees is a goldmine of charm.
The all-star cast also features Alessandro Juliani, Julia Mackey, Tom McBeath, Gabrielle Rose, and Donna White.
In the last act, the full genius of Collier’s staging hits home. You won’t forget it.