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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Behold there were voices: The Book of Esther opens at Blyth

The Book of Esther
By Leanna Brodie
Directed by Leah Cherniak
Featuring Maggie Blake, Nathan Carroll, Eric Coates, Marion Day, Brad Rudy

The story: In the 1980’s 15-year-old Esther Dalzell runs away from her evangelical parents and her rural agricultural existence in Baker River for the wilds of Toronto. She finds shelter with Todd Wishart, a middle-aged gay man who takes in “strays” until they can find their feet. One of his other strays is A.D., a street-savvy gay teen, who takes it upon himself to show Esther the world she has been missing.

The lynchpin in the story is Esther – Seth hangs on tightly to the century farm for her inheritance; to Anthea she represents a stop on the map to heavenly glory. To A.D. she is the bumpkin who needs to be shown the world; to Todd, she needs help, but also represents a way to connect to friends long lost. But it is Esther who is trying to find herself. That she ultimately finds a happy medium between the life she knew and the life she wants will come as no surprise, but her journey is life-changing for nearly all the other characters in the play.

Seth, her father (played by Blyth Artistic director Eric Coates), is best described as a staunch resident of the State of Denial, and is perhaps the person who journeys farthest. He faces near death, the loss of his beloved farm, and finally the truth about his best friend, Todd. Of their long-ago dispute and reconciliation – the former is too thin and the latter too neatly resolved; either the author or director could provide more dramatic tension to really tug at the heart-strings or plumb the characters’ depths.

That being said, Brad Rudy, who plays Todd, puts heart and soul into selling the pent-up frustration and anguish from that dispute during his confrontation with Seth, which is a long way from the patient, listening man that he also portrays when dealing with the characters of Esther and A.D. To his credit, Mr. Rudy also never once gets campy while ‘playing gay’, which is a refreshing change from other gay portrayals lately in the media.

A.D. could stand for “attention deficit” as frenetically played by Nathan Carroll. A.D. becomes a runaway in reverse – he goes to Esther’s farm and discovers as much about the beauty in rural life as Esther does about urban life. It is thanks to Mr. Carroll that we get to laugh most often as his energy that overwhelms the others and his wide-eyed delight as A.D. discovers simple pleasures (“Pie!”).

Esther grows up in the course of this play. At first she is forlorn, shy and unsure about everything except that she is unsure. Then actor Maggie Blake takes her through her first crush, her first taste of samosas, her fear of subways, and through a mountain of guilt back to the farm. But her journey does not end there, because little there has changed. It takes A.D. arriving and Todd coming home to galvanize Esther and the others into the future, a future that is not as rosy as a prairie sunset by any means.

The only character who does not change is Anthea, who remains righteously evangelical to the bittersweet end. There is one, brief shining moment when clarity and self-doubt shake her beliefs, but she quickly douses it and slips back into her comfort-zone of platitudes. As a crazed Anthea, Marion Day can thump bibles better than Tammy Faye Baker, with a smug smile to boot. At the same time, Ms. Day evokes some sympathy for Anthea, showing the pathetic side of entrenched, irreconcilable, yet hypocritical religious beliefs. Anthea just never gets it, and we feel sorry for her because of it.

With clever use of scrims, projections and a set that doubles easily for a Parkdale apartment and rural farmhouse (yes, it does), The Book of Esther could have easily been a tiresome tirade about sexual-societal-religious tolerance. Although there is some bad blocking in which actors cannot be heard, the awakening that takes place in most of the characters is, while not exactly uplifting, is at least affirming. The play could even end one short scene earlier – as the poet said, “a good play needs no epilogue.”

The Book of Esther continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival until September 4th.

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