Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pathos With Laughs: David Storey's Home at Soulpepper

Maria Vacratsis, Michael Hanrahan, Oliver Dennis & Brenda Robins in Home (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company's nuanced staging of Home, written by the British playwright David Storey back in 1970, offers up a whole slew of meanings. The production conjures up different memories and notions of what a home is, but in this important play it’s also about belonging. They have resurrected an almost forgotten gem, a Broadway hit for two of England’s greatest actors, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, and their director, Lindsay Anderson, over forty years ago. This new version opens a door to a whole new perspective on the work without fear of expectation or comparison. For director Albert Schultz, Home is about the absence of family. The play features five characters who are only related only by the place in which they live – unfortunately it is an asylum for the mentally ill.

Home features a day in the life of five characters: three men and two women. Each character is flawed, but not so much to pose any danger to the other. Their behaviour is subtle and suggestive. While the women are tough and strong, the men are emotional wrecks who put on a brave face to disguise their inner pain. The men are played by Oliver Dennis as Jack and Michael Hanrahan as Harry. (Andre Sills plays Alfred, the body builder.) When the play begins, Harry and Jack meet outside in the very spare garden for sunlight and conversation. Ken MacKenzie’s minimalist set features a slowly moving film of clouds in the background while the action takes place downstage. Their talk might be full of wit as they carry on light conversation, but you never make the mistake of considering it lightweight. Each one tries to hide deeper feelings by using words to cover up what ails them. So topics like the weather, meal breaks and family make up their patter. The sad part is the fact that one day becomes like the next for these characters whose only relief comes in the form of reinvention or by changing their personal histories.

The women, played by Brenda Robins as Kathleen and Maria Vacratsis as Marjorie, are much more forthright and bitchy. These are hardened women: Kathleen is suicidal and constantly complaining about her sore feet. Marjorie, who is older, is full of rage and expresses it with sarcasm and colourful dick jokes. She’s distrustful of men in general constantly telling Kathleen to “pull down her dress.” The female characters offer quite a contrast to the males. The men are internally scared of showing emotion because they don’t know how to express it in words. So they simply begin crying uncontrollably and reach for a handkerchief to wipe their eyes.

Home presents its themes quite simply. While the men and women carry themselves with great dignity, it’s not a romantic play because these individuals are seeking inner-redemption and a freedom that cannot be achieved in a personal relationship. We know they are damaged goods and they know they are damaged goods, so it would have been silly for any cheap romantic notions to be attempted. Ironically, considering the place their in, each character quietly needs the other to survive. So as the play progresses, taking place through the course of an afternoon, the ensemble slowly reveals that they are in an institution whose limits are the walls of the grounds of which there is no escape. These characters, who could just as easily be your next-door neighbours (or members of your own family), are performed beautifully with economical movements and gracefully dignified interactions.

Storey’s writing, which is a sly blend of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, is full of non-sequiturs, puns and absurdities. The text is a continuous exchange of gags, carefully timed, to appear as ordinary conversation. Written for the common person’s ear and completely reliant upon the actor’s timing and delivery, Dennis and Hanrahan relish the opportunity to enjoy the crisp exchanges and they resist playing off the comic beats. They understand the importance of being in the moment and not “acting” for the sake of a laugh. Home gathers its strength out of subtext where it's not what the characters are saying that’s important. It’s what they’re hiding that draws our attention. One definition of home is described as “a place where one’s affections center, or where one finds rest, refuge or satisfaction.” But you're not totally convinced these characters will ever find it. Which is why it's refreshing to see a play that isn't trying to impress the audience by hitting them over the head with edicts regarding mental illness. It is the humanity of the work that is its strongest asset. Although Storey’s play is considered a comedy, Home is a work with pathos and we all feel it, no matter how big the laughs.

Soulpepper’s production of Home by David Storey, closes June 20.

John Corcelli is a broadcaster and occasional theatre director. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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