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Saturday, 31 July 2010

Gem of a Production: Pearl Gidley opens at Blyth

Pearl Gidley
Written by Gary Kirkham
Directed by Miles Potter
Starring Catherine Fitch, Gil Garratt, Patricia Hamilton, Sam Malkin

The story: Piss-and-vinegar Pearl Gidley and her romantic-minded sister Edith are leading their unassuming and unexciting lives in Blyth, Ontario in April 1971, when their neighbor George asks them to take in a border, a young Vietnam veteran named Charles. In a time of financial crisis in the country and violent conflict overseas, each of them has their own inner battles that threaten the carefully built détente within the home. But secrets kept too long may make people a little squirrely, and when truths are acknowledged will they each find peace or will their lives be torn apart?

Author Gary Kirkham looked no further than the town of Blyth for inspiration for his new play – Pearl Gidley actually existed, although the her story is fictionalized for dramatic effect.

The story as told by the author is fairly predictable. Pearl is a melancholy being, and it is not long before one can glean that the root of her melancholy is a long-ago romance turned sour. The elephant in her room is a beautiful upright piano that she never plays, though she once used to be a concert pianist. So the play of course ends with her at the keys to bring it full circle. It is the type of story one might hear on Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café, full of pathos, good intentions and dollops of every-day, earthy humour.

I happen to love the stories on Vinyl Café. As directed by Miles Potter, Pearl Gidley is beautifully realized, like comfort-theatre one wishes to return to again and again; as played by Catherine Fitch, Pearl Gidley goes from being our most irritating eccentric aunt to the one we look forward to visiting, or in this case, watching. When you do, there are a few rules to follow:

Rule number 1: Know your Dylan. Not the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Dylan Thomas, but that other poet, Bob Dylan. His music is featured and his spirit hangs in the air surrounding Charlie and George. (Attitudes expressed regarding the Vietnam conflict that may bear similarities to current international wars are most likely entirely intentional.)

Rule number 2: Know your Canadian history. Trudeau is in power, the old age pension is a newly devised form of red-tape-torture, your new SIN number does not refer to the number of indiscretions you’ve committed, and there are draft dodgers in the neighbourhood. In America it is less than a week before a massive march on Capitol Hill in Washington in which over 700 medals were “returned” by Vietnam veterans.

Rule number 3: Applaud your Blyth actors. Edith and Pearl are portrayed by Patricia Hamilton and Catherine Fitch, sparring like true siblings with the dirty-looks, cold silences and well-placed verbal jabs, but with the undercurrent of deep affection. They are both charming and funny – Ms. Fitch in Pearl’s “mean as a polecat” way, and Ms. Hamilton in her warmth and knowing looks. The tension is maintained between them until the very end, for which the author and director are to be applauded as well.

Rule number 4: Don’t forget about the men. The characters of Charles and George are just as developed, and Gil Garratt and Sam Malkin flesh them out wonderfully by showing bravery can come in many forms – the slightly crippled George puts up as much a fight in the Vietnam conflict as Charlie had, albeit in a different way.

Rule number 5: Remember that love takes many forms, can come on in a heartbeat, there is no age limit for it, and people can do strange and wonderful things as a result of it.

Rule number 6: Enjoy Pearl Gidley. It runs at the Blyth Festival until September 4th. (Somebody alert Stuart McLean.)

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