2011: A Retrospect

Reviewed by Denyse Lynde

The year 2011 saw three new plays produced by three seasoned playwrights.  Five @ Fifty was first produced by Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England; across the ocean, Tom At The Farm was presented at Theatre d’Aujourd’hui in Montreal and Oil and Water premiered in Newfoundland. The three playwrights all received many distinctions for their work. They also share an extraordinary talent as storytellers. The tales they create and the characters that emerge are all equally compelling but, in this case, could not be more different. From the five female friends in Five @ Fifty to Tom’s encounter with his dead lover’s family in Tom At The Farm, two remarkably different worlds are revealed. Contrasting these two worlds are the two stories about Lanier Phillips in Oil and Water.

Five @ Fifty is the story of five women, all aged fifty, who have been friends for years. They all remember a fateful high school dance when no one would dance with them. The heart of the story is a lesbian couple, Norma and Olivia, and when the play begins they are all gathering at their home to celebrate Olivia’s birthday. Fraser takes time and care to create each woman. First to arrive, as usual, is Tricia, a journalist. Next to arrive in a new dress is the real estate agent Lorene who is now on her fourth husband. Mother of three and passionate about yoga is Fern and as is characteristic of her, she arrives on time. It is Norma, a doctor, who has made the amazing birthday cake and bought champagne to honour her partner, Olivia. When Olivia does arrive, she is drunk. Things begin to disintegrate as the birthday girl decides to dominate the party with a long rambling story about restaurant food. Then she makes an offensive toast to her supposed friends and more. Olivia and alcoholism is part of this tale. Equally compelling is the story of the enabler, in this case, Norma. However, each of these @ fifty year olds struggle with their own addictions whether they be painkillers or sex. The heart of the story are the relationships tested and strained by addictions and rehabilitation together with what is changed and reinvented by facing addiction. Surrounding the couple are the three friends who want to help; however, each in turn realizes that she can only help herself. The play ends with Olivia alone, heading once again for rehabilitation.

Bouchard creates a very different dramatic world in Tom At The Farm. Tom travels to his dead lover’s rural home where he meets his mother, Agatha, and previously unknown brother, Francis. While Five @ Fifty is about denial and self-deception, Tom At The Farm is about deeply held secrets and violence. Tom came to find something, something about himself, something about his lover, Jeff. Before he knows it, he is sleeping in Jeff’s bed and wearing his clothes. It is in this bedroom that he first meets Francis, Jeff’s brother, who attacks him and warns him to keep Jeff’s homosexuality secret. Mother, brother and lover fall into a nightmarish relationship where all play dangerous roles. Agatha accepts Tom as her son and Francis and Tom move into a violent relationship where Tom carries the wounds. In fact after a particularly violent encounter, Tom curls up with Francis in his bed. It is only when Sara, a co-worker and supposedly Jeff’s “pretend” girlfriend, arrives and expresses shock at seeing Tom’s beaten body, that a shift occurs. She refuses to play her assigned role and her refusal breaks the roles they were all clinging to. Their false world explodes.

Yet another dramatic world is realized in Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water. This play is really two stories. The first is the story of a young, angry Black man, Lanier aboard the U. S. S. Truxton, which struck the rocks near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, in February, 1942 ,and the local people struggled to save survivors. The second story is set in Boston, 1974, when a judge orders massive busing to integrate Boston schools. Lanier’s daughter is on one of those buses. How Chafe brings these two disparate stories together is masterful. The older Lanier must not only remember what St. Lawrence taught him but also now must let what happened in that small Newfoundland town teach his daughter, Vonzia. His experience in St. Lawrence changed him fundamentally. He found a world where racism did not exist. He spends two days in a brave new world that he decides to bring back to America with him. He realizes that Vonzia, in her fear and anger, to must be saved, changed, in fact, be baptized as he had been. She must be told the story so that she too can find her way and learn this important lesson.

In staging their stories, each playwright is extremely comfortable with his craft. Fraser moves his interesting females from public to private spaces as he weaves his web of addiction and denial. Simple lighting moves the audience through the carefully plotted tale. In a similar manner, Bouchard moves us through his violent world but what is remarkable is how he creates Tom. Tom moves us in and out of the narrative by frequently addressing his dead lover or himself. Through this dual consciousness, the audience must share the pain and violence of homophobia. Chafe’s world is rich and deeply moving, as one expects from this artist: here we have three distinct perspectives maintained by choric music and staging. All three plays deserve attention, and, if you are lucky, a viewing.

This review “2011: A Retrospect” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 131-32.

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